Think for just a minute about the skills you use every day at work. Maybe you’re a designer or engineer who had specialized training and tools. Maybe you’re an executive who has a talent for building teams. Or maybe you’re a Mom or Dad who works to help your child understand the world.
No matter what you do for work, you are an explainer. Part of your job is helping others understand ideas - it’s a fundamental part of being a professional. We explain ideas every day - we just never think about how we do it. Our explanations just... happen.
But what if they didn’t just happen? What if we actually recognized when an idea was not getting through and crafted a better explanation to solve the problem? In this context, explanations can solve problems, lots of them. Here’s one way to think about it...
Understanding comes with a cost. If we want to understand compound interest, we must invest some time. If we want to understand quantum physics, we need to invest a LOT of time. These investments are costs in the form of time and energy. If the cost is too high, we lose motivation.
When you’re at work and your team is not understanding an idea, they may feel that the cost of understanding it is too high. They don’t have the time to invest, so they’d rather just focus on other things.
For you, this is a challenge. Rather than convincing them to invest the time, you could focus on lowering the cost of understanding. By explaining the idea in a remarkable way, you may be able to get their attention and help them see an idea from a new perspective. This is the goal of explanation and why it matters. Explanations lower the cost of understanding so that we can motivate and inspire others to take the next step.
So, you may be wondering, how do you lower the cost? The first step is to empathize. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes and consider what your explanation sounds like to them. Talk about the idea from their perspective and build context. Second, write it down. By simply writing down what you're trying to explain, you'll start to see it in a new light. Pretend you're writing a script for a Common Craft video. Third, think in terms of confidence. What can you say that will create and sustain their confidence? Get their heads nodding early and build onto a big idea, step-by-step.
Here are a few blog posts that may also help:
- 10 Steps to a Truly Horrible Explanation
- How to Explain Your Job
- Explaining Vs. Storytelling for Startups
- Why this Bathroom Sign is a Great Explanation
Of coure, you might also consider the book The Art of Explanation - Making Your Ideas, Products, and Services Easy to Understand.