Explaining Lessons From the Front Lines of Dog Rescue

My wife and I spend many of our Saturdays helping out a with a dog rescue group’s adoption events. Volunteers bring 25 or so adoptable dogs to a Petco in a busy strip mall, line them up in crates outside, and meet the public.

It’s quite the spectacle, and it attracts a diverse crowd. At one extreme, we talk to potential adopters who have researched dog breeds extensively and browsed our Web site to make a list of specific dogs they want to meet. On the other end of the spectrum, we talk to shoppers strolling by who’ve never even heard of dog rescue.



Dog explainists at work. The “Low Prices!” are on dog food, not dogs.

I’m fascinated (if occasionally frustrated) by the people on the confused end of the scale because they’re such perfect explanation test cases. If you don’t know anything about rescue, the sight of two dozen yapping dogs in crates on the sidewalk must be bizarre. I imagine you don’t even know where to begin to make sense of things. Meanwhile, the only explainers around — the volunteers — know so much about dog rescue that it’s hard for them to empathize with your confusion. There’s a huge understanding gap.

Typically, the confused people dive right in with questions. Occasionally, someone will ask, “What’s going on here?” but more often, the first question is something specific like “How much does that dog cost?” or “How do I get a dog?”

When I first started volunteering, I would just answer the questions as they came. But pretty soon I realized some people were only getting more confused, and more convinced I was nuts. My answers didn’t make sense to the questioner because the questioner wasn’t starting with a blank knowledge slate. They had already filled in a few key gaps with assumptions, based on their own guesses.

In the case of dog rescue, confused people typically make one of two incorrect assumptions:

  1. We are operating a business, and we make a profit by selling these dogs.
  2. We are trying to get rid of these dogs as quickly as we can. (i.e. we are a “free puppies” ad on a larger scale.)

If you believe either one of these things, our policies are going to seem counter-intuitive. Adopting a dog from our group involves filling out a six-page application and going through a rigorous week-long screening process — not exactly the behavior you would expect from a money-making venture or a “take my dogs, please” operation. And our adoption fee is more than you would expect to see in a Craigslist puppy ad. When you start with a misconception, it seems like we’re going about things all wrong.

So, I learned to drain these assumptions before pouring more information in. I learned that just about everything I say will be misconstrued unless I explain my motivation first.

In other words, I learned to answer the ideal initial question, instead of the actual initial question. No matter what the actual question was, my opening spiel now goes something like this:

“We’re an all-volunteer non-profit group, and our mission is to find homes for dogs in need. Many of these dogs come from overcrowded county animal shelters or shut-down breeder operations. Some were abandoned by their original owners. We spay or neuter them, give them all their shots, treat any problems and care for them until they are adopted. Since these dogs have had a rough start in life, we spend a lot of time making sure the adopters and dogs are a perfect match.”

If there’s still head-scratching, I may get into statistics on how many dogs have to be euthanized every year because of overpopulation. Despite Bob Barker’s best efforts, a lot of people don’t know anything about this.

Once someone understands what our motivation is, the details of our process and policies make much more sense, even if the whole thing still seems kooky.

This principle applies to most explaining situations. For example, if you’re pitching a business idea, the details are likely to be confusing unless you thoroughly explain the basic purpose of your business first. Your audience is likely to fill in their own rationale for the business, which may not line up with the actual rationale. The details and baseline assumptions won’t match, and confusion will flourish. Or consider how you explain technology. Unless you lay out a machine’s function, details of how the various pieces operate won’t make much sense.

It’s a handy rule. Before you dig in to the specifics, scrub away all incorrect assumptions and clearly explain your motivation. First, answer the best question an audience could have asked, then answer the questions they did ask.

Textbooks = Explaining Fail?

Seth Godin thinks so:

Textbooks have very little narrative. They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best marketing textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.

I agree that textbooks of this sort fall flat on their faces, and it sounds like textbook standards have slipped considerably. But I firmly stand by the idea of a textbook. To me a single volume that takes you from zero knowledge to thorough understanding is invaluable. Popular nonfiction publishers are less likely to approach subjects that way, because it can result in hard-to-market doorstop-sized behemoths.

But I also like Godin’s alternative proposal:

The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it’s part of their job, remember?) When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you’re done.

The Most Underrated Business Document

I think it’s the glossary.

I’ve read (and written) more BRDs, MRDs, PRDs, RFPs, agenda notes, and PowerPoint epics than I care to remember, and very few of them have included glossaries. This is too bad, because in many cases, that was the one document I really needed — a list of simple definitions for unfamiliar terminology, names, and the like related to the project/idea/problem at hand. There’s a reason you find one in the back of every textbook.

In my experience, most business ideas and concepts — even technical concepts — are simple enough for a smartish laymen to understand. And your typical company has no shortage of planning meetings dedicated to going over business ideas. Yet confusion runs rampant in corporate life. I blame vocabulary, at least in part (I have to give good ol’ BS top honors).

It’s human not to know some specialized terminology, so you’ll naturally miss words during some presentations and meetings. If you miss enough words, you can’t follow everything the speaker is saying — even if what he’s saying is actually very simple.

When you’re sitting at a conference table, you might not be able to look the word up until later. At that point, you’ve already missed the thread of the discussion. This is especially tricky when you’ve just started a new job, since companies tend to have their own house jargon on top of industry terminology.

In unhealthy teams, corporate psychology can pour gas on the problem. Mastery of terminology is a hard-won advantage at work, and there’s a natural tendency to keep your advantages to yourself. So, some people end up using specialized vocabulary to thump their chest (on an unconscious level, anyway). And if somebody else is confused by an unfamiliar term, he may not ask for a definition because he thinks it would be a sign of weakness. (Yes, I’m saying we are all just a bunch of apes with laptops and impressive titles.)

But even putting the psych 101 aside, time constraints and manners encourage this behavior. It feels disruptive to ask a speaker for a definition every 10 seconds.

So, it’s an uphill battle to stop speakers from spewing undefined jargon and encourage listeners to ask for clarification. But it does seem feasible for companies to make glossaries a corporate culture staple. If you’re already printing a stack of handouts for every meeting, why not include a cheat-sheet defining specialized terms, companies, technologies, or people you expect will come up?

It’s a good idea to maintain updated master glossary for each project too, and post it to your project intranet page, if you have one. I’ve seen company-wide glossaries on corporate intranets, which are also great, but they tend to become orphans. Project or team-specific glossaries have a better chance of surviving, in my experience.

I also like to maintain my own personal glossary. When I take meeting notes, I write down any term I don’t fully understand, and scrawl “vocab” next to it in the margin. By the end of every day, I take the time to look up any new terms, and add them to a master glossary I keep on my Backpack page. It’s my own personal “back of the book.” Flash cards optional.

Explaining Makes You More Persuasive

And research shows even a terrible explanation does the trick.

From Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive:

“Because” makes any explanation rational. In a line to Kinko’s copy machine a researcher asked to jump the line by presenting a reason “Can I jump the line, because I am in a rush?” 94% of people complied. Good reason, right? Okay, let’s change the reason. “Can I jump the line because I need to make copies?” Excuse me? That’s why everybody is in the line to begin with. Yet 93% of people complied. A request without “because” in it (”Can I jump the line, please?”) generated 24% compliance.

50 Great Data Visualizations

Web Designer Depot put together an excellent round-up of online data visualizations — that is, graphical representations of information. From the post:

Wrapping your brain around data online can be challenging, especially when dealing with huge volumes of information. And trying to find related content can also be difficult, depending on what data you’re looking for. But data visualizations can make all of that much easier, allowing you to see the concepts that you’re learning about in a more interesting, and often more useful manner.

I especially like the many examples of visualizations that change in real time to communicate ever-changing data, such as Web traffic.