Category Archives: questions & answers

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.

Fascinating Jobs Explained

McSweeney’s has a new installment in their growing collection, “Interviews with People Who Have Interesting or Unusual Jobs.” The writers do a great job eliciting clear explanations, and the subjects have some fascinating stories.

The newest addition is an interview with a 911 dispatcher. The “keep him on the line so we can trace the call” movie cliche drives me nuts, so I cherished this exchange:

Q: Can you trace where people live based on their phone number?
A: Assuming it’s a land line—a regular home phone—the screen shows your address and the phone number the call is coming from.
Q: And how about cell phones?
A: For all cell phones that are phase-2 wireless, we should be able to get a hit within 50-foot accuracy.

If you have or have had a fascinating job, McSweeney’s wants to hear from you, at

Putting Explainists on Call?

This is a cool idea: Aardvark promises to connect askers to qualified answerers. ReadWriteWeb explains:

Aardvark is a neat new service that lives in your IM client and which routes any question you might have to an Aardvark user who has the right expertise to answer your query. In return, Aardvark will also send you a few questions every day that fit your profile. You then decide to either answer the question or refer it to another friend. Of course, you can also always pass if you don’t know the answer.

The examples on Aardvark’s site are in the helpful tips vein (e.g. “What’s the best place to go biking around Golden Gate Park?”), and I expect this will be the way most people use the service. But depending on how the matching system works, it could also be a great way to find good “why” explanations too — like a clear breakdown of a difficult concept or a plain English definition for an unfamiliar term. Yahoo! Answers, Answerbag and similar sites get lots of these types of questions and the answers are almost always terrible. You get a random selection of people typing out their best guest, whether they know anything or not. By finding the right expert for you, maybe Aardvark will improve the signal to noise ratio.

I’m looking forward to finding out. It’s supposed to come out of private beta at South by Southwest, which kicks off on Friday.

[via ReadWriteWeb]