Explanation Tricks from Planet Money and Chana Joffe-Walt

When people ask me who is doing the best explanatory work these days, I often point to public radio and podcasts.  The radio format, while not visual, can be incredibly engaging and effective in packaging complicated ideas into explanations.  

One of our favorites is NPR’s Planet Money podcast which has the tagline “The Economy Explained”.  The podcast got started with an episode of This American Life in May of 2008 called the Giant Pool of Money. This hour-long show explained the mortgage crisis in a way I’d never heard and spawned Planet Money, which has carried the explanatory torch to today. 
One of the stars of Planet Money is a woman named Chana Joffe-Walt.  In speaking with Patrick Sharma for our recent interview, he pointed me to an article by Joffe-Walt on Transom.org that shares the secrets of Planet Money’s explanations.  
To really understand her perspective and all the rich examples, I highly recommend reading the original article, where she shares 5 explanation “tricks”.  Here’s a taste that she uses to sum up the ideas:
Lastly I'd say yes, Idea Stories are a pain in the ass, but they provide an enormous service. People feel so grateful when you clearly explain something complicated. It gives them an access point to all future stories on the topic. It can be powerful to hear a piece that gets at a big fundamental idea or question. It gets under people’s skin. There are obviously more than five tricks to take a boring or complicated topic and make it interesting. The point is if you’re fascinated by something but it seems really complicated, or if you can tell everyone is confused by something and you are too and you’re thinking it’s a monster to take on – do it. Find a way to make it work. It’s worth it.
This echoes what Jay Rosen, NYU Journalism Professor and media critic, has said about explanation - that it can motivate people to become a “customer of ongoing news”.  By explaining it well, we can offer people an invitation to see why something matters and help them make sense of changes and events in the future.

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.