Category Archives: explaining tricks

How Should We Talk to You?

A couple weeks ago, I went to post something here and found the chilling white screen of death – no blog, no admin dashboard, just the sound of wind whistling through the PHP. Many thanks to Steven D. and David H. at Dreamhost for helping me resurrect the site. The crash wasn’t their fault (it was the tragic final act of an aging WordPress theme), but the always terrific Dreamhost crew came to the rescue anyway.

Making a help request, I noticed a nice bit of explaining:

With the range of expertise among their customers, I bet over-explaining (starting off too rudimentary) would be just as big a risk as under-explaining. What a clever solution.

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.

A Communications Primer

Okay class, we have a movie today. Somebody get the lights please.

This 20-minute 1953 film from renowned married designers Ray and Charles Eames falls into one of my favorite genres: contemplation of a familiar subject as seen from a removed vantage point. In this case, the subject is communication, with a focus on binary information.


Frame from A Communications Primer

The film may not teach you much you didn’t know already, but it’s a showcase of ways to build an explanation with engaging imagery. It’s also a prime example of an excellent explanation trick — illuminating multiple subjects by casting them as different versions of the same thing. The film shows how painting, speech, telegrams, printed images, text, computer programs, etc. all have the same core components: information source, message, transmitter, signal, receiver, and destination. Focusing on the fundamental similarities cuts through potentially confusing details to give you a solid model for understanding each one.


Frame from A Communications Primer

On top of that, it’s loaded with the warm, warbly woodwind music of classroom films (in this case, composed by the late great movie score composer Elmer Bernstein). If you were a kid in the 50s through 80s, you probably know this as the music of education. Or desk naps.

[via Kottke]

Explanatory Filenames

Here’s an Andy-Rooneyish pet peeve: filenames and subject lines that don’t take the intended audience into account.

Do you know what I hate?

For example, let’s say you’re responding to a request for proposal (RFP) for a project called The Annihilatrix. What filename do you choose for your proposal when you email it to the potential client?

In my experience, even some big agencies will call it Annihilatrix_Proposal.pdf or something similar. If you’re working on proposals for multiple possible clients, this is a logical way to keep track of all of them. But think about the guy on the other end who receives proposals from 10 different candidates on the deadline day, all with the same filename. The first thing he has to do is rename each of them. If you’re thinking about your audience, you’d save the proposal with your company’s name in the filename — e.g. TomCo-Annihilatrix_Proposal.pdf.

There are many such opportunities for better explanations in business. For example, the subject line “Marketing Plan” isn’t very helpful if you’re emaling the head of the marketing department. She might be dealing with a dozen marketing plans for different projects.

Practicing good explanation even in the small matters can really make life easier for your oh-so-busy colleagues. Pay it forward.

Brains Be Different from Computers

Don’t leave good metaphors lying around unattended, or somebody might get hurt. Up to a certain point, a good metaphor does wonders to facilitate understanding. But as you get deeper into a subject, a metaphor will become less and less accurate. And if you don’t toss the metaphor when it starts to go bad, it will actually block deeper understanding.

So, metaphors get you over a learning hump, but you can’t be too devoted to them. They’re like training wheels that… . That one fell apart before it even got started.

Anyway, one of the biggest, hairiest, most useful and potentially most troublesome metaphors of our time is the idea that computers are brains (and vice versa). This one is so mighty, in fact, that it’s easy to forget it’s actually a metaphor. And if you take it too literally, you’ll fundamentally misunderstand both computers and brains.

In a new smarty-pants post on Developing Intelligence, Chris Chatham puts computers and brains side by side and rattles off 11 metaphor-busting differences between them. In the process, he sheds a lot of light on both. For example, difference number 8 is that in the brain, processing and memory are handled by the same components. One effect of this is that you can easily overwrite a memory with an inaccurate version in the process of remembering it. Please, remember with care.

In addition to the illuminating explanations throughout, I really like how Chatham gets some more use out of a metaphor before chucking it. Once you’ve learned all you can by seeing two things as the same, see what you can learn by investigating how they’re different. Good trick.

[via Cognitive Daily]