Lower the Cost of Understanding

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Learning a new idea or subject comes with a cost. It requires time, focus, and effort. Some subjects, like quantum computing, come with high costs. Many of us can't justify the time and effort required to understand the subject fully, so we dither. Thankfully, quantum computing isn't currently essential to many of our lives.

But what about:

  • Taxes or personal finance?
  • 401(k)s and saving for retirement?
  • Media literacy or internet safety?
  • Healthy eating habits?

These things matter and often come with higher costs. Unfortunately, some people ignore them, in part, because they can seem too intimidating; the cost of understanding seems too high. This is the challenge of the explainer. By thinking in terms of cost, and specifically how to lower the cost of understanding, we can find creative ways to earn attention and help others become interested in the subject.

Example: The Giant Pool of Money

The 2008 financial crisis was an amazing example of this phenomenon. It touched nearly everyone and came with a high cost of understanding. NPR producers Ira Glass, Adam Davidson, and Alex Blumberg set out to explain it via a one hour episode of This American Life called The Giant Pool of Money.

One of the listeners to that episode was Jay Rosen, a Journalism professor at NYU. On his Pressthink blog, he described his experience:

Going into the program I didn't understand the mortgage mess one bit: subprime loans were ruining Wall Street firms? And I should care because they are old, respected firms? Coming out of it, I understood the complete scam: what happened, why it happened, and why I should care.

The program successfully lowered the cost of understanding a very complex and important topic. Rosen continues:

I noticed something after I first listened to the Giant Pool of Money. I became a customer of ongoing news about the mortgage mess. 'Twas a successful act of explanation that put me in the market for information.

The explanation moved him from being disinterested to someone who actively sought out information about the crisis. For the first time, Rosen knew enough to care. He became a customer of that information.

This is a worthy goal for all explainers. If we can lower the cost of understanding with creative explanations, we can help others become engaged in a new subject and see how it's relevant to them. We can motivate them to keep learning.

On the other hand, if the cost remains high, problems can fester. People may learn to ignore the subject or find easier paths, like conspiracy theories or misinformation, to make sense of it.

What You Can Do

The next time your goal is to help someone understand a new subject, think about their perception of cost. If they feel the cost is too high and have tuned out, it's an opportunity to take a step back and explain it from a different perspective.