Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention, in my view, was remarkable because of how he chose to explain ideas. Politics aside, it was an great example of explanation at work. Last night we saw more evidence, via an interview with Jon Stewart, that explanation was his specific intent.
A few key quotes:
"I was determined to get the facts right and to simplify the arguments without being simplistic, I didn't want to talk down to people. I wanted to explain what I thought was going on."
The intent to explain. This is an idea that I write about in The Art of Explanation
. A huge first step in building explanation skills is to take a step back and make explanation a priority. By making explanation a goal, we can approach an idea from a new perspective. We can make a conscious choice to turn ideas into explanations.
"Just forget about politics, think about any time in your life, you've been confused or angry or frightened, or resentful or anything and you didn't know what was going on. In those moments, explanation is way more important than eloquence. And rhetoric falls on deaf ears, so the only chance I had to get anybody to really listen was to say look - here's what I think happened."
What a great quote. From my perspective, this strikes at the heart of the one big question explanations are built around: why? We all seek answers to this question every day. Why does the world work this way? Why have things changed? Why is this happening to me? These are serious questions and when we don't have understandable answers, we grow more frustrated. Effective explanations help solve this problem.
This was the feeling we had when we first started making video explanations. We sensed that people were feeling anxious and even fearful about social media. Rather than pontificating or trying to look smart, we looked for ways to help people feel smart and confident.
More from Clinton:
"You can get all kind of information off the internet, but you can't be sure if it's right or not and there's all these disparate facts out there. So what I tried to do was organize all the information in a way that I thought would be most helpful to people."
This goes back to my point above about intent. He made an effort to explain the ideas. But that's not all. Clinton focused on organization, or as I call it in the book, "packaging ideas". This is another goal of explanation - to take an idea or set of ideas and package it into a form that makes it understandable for an audience. This means taking the time to build context and agreement. It means using language that accounts for the audience's level of understanding and confidence. It means telling stories and making connections.
Imagine a world where your boss, your Mom or peer could explain their ideas more effectively. Think of the positive change and efficiency it could create. The potential of explanation as a fundamental communication skill is tremendous, yet often forgotten. At the same time, just a little effort and improvement can make a huge difference. That's the change I want to see in the world.
NOTE: If you're interested in learning in-depth about the skill of explanation and how to make Common Craft Style videos, check out our online courses at the Explainer Academy.