You may have the best product or service in your industry but if potential customers can't understand how it works or why they need it, you'll be lucky to attract a single buyer. According to author and consultant Lee LeFever, the ability to explain your ideas in a simple, understandable way is a
skill that every business needs but few practice. Common Craft, the company LeFever founded, has created explanation videos for a number of global clients. In this interview, the author of The Art of
Explanation provides insight into the difference between description and explanation, the need to put yourself in the mindset of the listener, and how to edit and test your explanations for maximum effectiveness.
Soundview: In The Art of Explanation, you state that tools and ideas are ignored because they lack clear explanations of their value. Why is it that organizations gloss over the importance of an explanation?
Lee LeFever: I think that organizations and individuals have a similar problem. We all have it. It can be defined I think by an idea called the "Curse of Knowledge" that was made famous by Chip and Dan Heath in the book Made to Stick. The idea is that the more we
know about something, the more we live in a subject matter, the harder it is for us to imagine what it's like not to know what we know. So when it comes time for us to explain something, we have a hard time empathizing with the audience and imagining what it's like to hear our words. That makes our
explanations come off maybe too technical or too complex because we have that hard time empathizing.
Soundview: You create a distinction between explanation and a variety of other terms that people confuse with explanation. What separates explanation from description?
LeFever: They do have a lot in common and I really hesitate to draw a really distinct line between them but one way I might say it is that it's a difference between why and how. If you look at a recipe for baking a cake, you consider the recipe as a description. It tells
you step by step how to do something very tactically. If you follow that, it works. Explanation I think is a little bit higher-level version of that. It's not just how does it work or how does it fit together but why should I care or more importantly, why does it make sense that this works the way
it does? An example of that is that a recipe might call for baking soda. You put baking soda in there like the recipe says, the cake does well. But if you understand the role of baking soda and why it makes sense that baking soda is in there then it allows you to understand the role of baking soda
in all of baking and apply that knowledge in a different way.
Soundview: In organizations, you'll often hear one department say they need to "translate" something for another department. Is there a message for putting yourself in the mindset of the listener to prevent over-complication?
LeFever: I think for most people, they might not ever think about actually planning out what they're going to say. They might think about how. What are the main points? But one of the things that I advocate, and this comes from our work in creating
videos, is the simple act of sitting down and writing out what do you want someone to understand. It does wonders from making it more understandable even just for your own good. I think one of the keys is to actually see that explanation is the skill that doesn't just have to happen. We can
actually plan it and think it through so that we can develop our own talking points before we go into that meeting or before we actually create the media that will explain what we want to explain.
Soundview: How does someone edit his or her explanations? What do you recommend for testing one's explanations to refine them?
LeFever: Working within a team and having partners can be a way to bounce ideas and develop the script. In the process of writing scripts for our videos, we often will reach out to people who we know or, not the worldwide authority on the subject, but someone like our
parents and have them look at it. We have them tell us what's confusing to them or not. I think that a key is being able to reach out to people and just ask for favors to say, "Hey, does this make sense to you?" and use that to develop and work out some of the points that maybe aren't working.