Category Archives: good explanations

Here Be Dragons

Learning is surely one of most rewarding experiences life has to offer, but it can also be deeply unpleasant — even terrifying. Tackling a new, complex topic can feel like setting off on a voyage across treacherous seas with no map or guide. You don’t know what you don’t know, and the unknown lurks ominously like the menacing dragon showing uncharted waters on an old map.

Image of the Carta Marina map, featuring a variety of sea creatures
Portion of the Carta Marina map, published in 1539. Wikimedia Commons.

I know there are people who jet-ski into difficult topics without a care in the world. More power to you. But the rest of us are often intimidated, or at least hesitant to get underway. Learning is one of my favorite things, but I still find myself procrastinating when I need to dive into something especially challenging. 

What am I wary of? Simply put, I don’t like feeling stupid. And I know that’s what’s coming. 

You’d think you would start feeling smarter as soon as you start learning about something. After all, you’re already chipping away at your ignorance. But in my experience, that’s not how it works, at least for tougher subjects. When I start researching something, the first thing I learn is just how truly ignorant I am. Every new concept, every unfamiliar term, every insider reference shows me how much I don’t know. One big dragon on the map turns into dozens and dozens of dragons. 

Of course, you are learning a lot during this stage, but it doesn’t always feel like it. There may be many setbacks and few rewards for a while. Ideally, you’ll keep going, knowing you’ll enjoy the knowledge on the other side. But it’s not learning as advertised on library posters — happily riding a magical book over castles and rainbows.

I think this is a big reason so many kids turn against school and even learning in general. If you’re struggling, it’s natural that you might start to feel stupid. And it’s natural you would want to avoid feeling that way. If you pile on negative feedback like low grades, punishment, and public shaming, it’s no wonder so many people want to walk away from learning.

All of this is top of mind when I’m trying to explain something. If I’m writing an explanation, I want to map out unfamiliar topics for the reader, and I want to acknowledge those areas are unfamiliar. As much as possible, I want to avoid introducing new dragons, like unexplained concepts, mystifying jargon, and impenetrable acronyms. I want to describe each new thing I bring, so the reader can put it on the map. A thoughtful explanation is like a reassuring guide taking the audience out where they’ve never been, steadily building up their knowledge. You’re helping your audience create their own map of the unknown.


Aside: While old maps did include maps and other creatures, it turns out they didn’t include the phrase. “Here Be Dragons” (or the Latin “Hic sunt dracones”). The famous phrase does appear on one globe — the Hunt-Lenox Globe, which was made in 1510 — but no other examples have been found. It’s not clear how it entered lore, but this article in the Atlantic includes a possible explanation. 

Strategist. Content Strategist.

My job title these days is content strategist, and one of the consequences of that is I often have to explain what I do and why it matters. In the interest of honing my own spiel, I’ve read and collected many other spiels. This take on the subject, excerpted from the new book The Elements of Content Strategy, is my favorite to date.

Here’s a taste:

Let us meditate for a moment on James Bond. Clever and tough as he is, he’d be mincemeat a hundred times over if not for the hyper-competent support team that stands behind him. When he needs to chase a villain, the team summons an Aston Martin DB5. When he’s poisoned by a beautiful woman with dubious connections, the team offers the antidote in a spring-loaded, space-age infusion device. When he emerges from a swamp overrun with trained alligators, it offers a shower, a shave, and a perfectly tailored suit. It does not talk down to him or waste his time. It anticipates his needs, but does not offer him everything he might ever need, all the time.

Content is appropriate for users when it helps them accomplish their goals.

Content is perfectly appropriate for users when it makes them feel like geniuses on critically important missions, offering them precisely what they need, exactly when they need it, and in just the right form. All of this requires that you get pretty deeply into your users’ heads, if not their tailoring specifications.

Can’t wait to read the whole book.

[via Extraface]

RSA Animate Helps Explain

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a 250-year-old English institution with high-minded ideals:

Our vision is to be a powerful and innovative force. Bringing together different disciplines and perspectives, we will bring new ideas and urgent and provocative debates to a mass audience. We will work with partners to generate real progress in our chosen project areas, and through our Fellowship we will be seen as a source of capacity, commitment and innovation in communities from the global to the local.

Best of all, they’re doing it through cartoons, at least in part. RSA Animate is a video series that couples RSA public lectures with wonderful illustrations that follow along with what the speaker is saying.



I found these via a Flowing Data post, which describes the videos a “a different take on the infographic.” That description and the name RSA Animate don’t quite hit the mark for me. The cartoons don’t really represent data or processes visually, and they’re not animated, for the most part. The studio that makes them, Cognitive Media, uses the term “Scribing,” which works well. The form is more like visual note-taking –the cartoons don’t explain things by themselves, but underscore particular points, helping those points to stick the landing in your brain.

I did something similar in school. In my margins, I’d make cartoons of pieces of art, historical North Carolinians, frogs, etc. to keep my mind from wandering*. I picked up the habit from Larry Gonick’s books, like The Cartoon History of the Universe, which have a lot in common with the RSA Animate series. In both, the cartoons are continually responding to the main narrative. It’s a highly effective mnemonic device, which makes it a great explaining tool– by pairing auditory or textual points with a related visual, you form more neural connections, which makes the ideas much stickier.

* I still do this in meeting sometimes, but more often, my doodling doesn’t relate to the subject matter. Brilliant scientists agree with me that this helps you concentrate.

Ira Glass Explains Storytelling

Last night, I finally watched season 2 of This American Life (the TV version), and it wrung me out good. I’m a longtime fan of the radio show, and I thought season 1 of the Showtime series was great, but even so, I was surprised by the truth and beauty of season 2. The finale, “John Smith,” is one of the most affecting and genuine films I’ve ever seen. It’s 17 E.T.s worth of humanity.

Here’s the trailer for season 2:



Anyway, during my great-TV hangover this morning, I was looking up This American Life stuff, and rediscovered Ira Glass’ explanation of the elements of great storytelling. This is more than two years old, so you might have seen it already, but I wanted it to be here.



Vonnegut’s Story Graphs

I love the way Kurt Vonnegut explained stories through graphs, described here by Derek Sivers.



Back in 1994, I saw Vonnegut do a version of this exercise in person, on a blackboard at Duke. In the lecture I saw, Vonnegut explained that Hamlet was the epitome of real drama, since unlike Cinderella, the story graph is pretty much a straight line. Essentially, Hamlet never learns whether anything that happens is good or bad and nothing is resolved, just like in life. Here’s the published version of the lecture, from A Man Without a Country (scroll down to the *):



Incidentally, Vonnegut made the best exit of any public speaker I’ve ever seen. At the end of his speech, he begrudgingly offered to take questions from the audience, as requested by the Duke speaker organizers. He answered a few fairly lame ones, including a teacher asking what one book should he get his students to read, assuming they would only read one (Vonnegut: “I suppose Genesis is a good place to start.”) Finally, he muttered, “I don’t think much of your questions. Goodnight,” and strolled off stage.

[via @gregg]

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.