The best I can remember, my formal education in written communication ended in formal letter writing. We learned where to put the return address and date, how to write a salutation and where to sign it. While these are still valuable skills, in the past ten years, I have used this knowledge approximately zero times. Yet, I have likely written tens of thousands of emails over the same period.
No one ever taught me how to communicate with a computer or email. It just happened - I got a computer, email arrived, I replied. I was self-taught and I’m certainly not alone.
In my first job out of grad school, I was a data analyst, but much of my day was spent supporting our customers and email was the tool I used most of all. I went to training sessions on databases, spreadsheets and others, but email? Never. I never learned any best practices or evaluations. It was assumed that I, along with those in similar positions, had sufficient email communication and organization skills. It never occurred to anyone that email communication is something that could be learned and improved.
And you’ve seen the outcomes. Confused colleagues, wasted time and missing details are all symptoms. I think most people would agree that the state of email communication is pretty poor - and it’s no surprise. There has rarely been a standard. We don’t know what effective email communication looks like or achieves. We don’t think about best practices.
I bring this up because it is just one example of how we take our everyday communications for granted. We communicate so often that we rarely take a step back and think - could I do this better? Could I be more successful if I improved this skill I use every day? Could my organization be more efficient and effective if everyone improved their communication skills?
It’s this idea that is behind the Art of Explanation. Like our email communications, we explain ideas so often that we don’t consider how we could do it better. And like email, no one ever taught us to do it effectively. We’re self-taught and our explanations just...happen.
I think there’s a better way. By learning to explain our ideas more effectively, we can invite our bosses, students, colleagues and customers to care and be motivated to take the next step. It’s a fundamental communication skill in any medium - something we can learn and improve over time, something that can make a difference in our lives.