When I talk about explanation skills, I often hear a common response: “Boy do I know someone who needs that!” Over time I’ve found that, often, this person in need is a scientist or research professor who can’t seem to explain their work or current projects in an understandable way.
It’s a fascinating paradox. You could reason that the most informed people would have the best explanations, but it’s not often the case. Many times, the inverse is true. As I first learned in the book Made to Stick, knowledge has a way of “cursing” us and making it difficult for us to imagine what it’s like not to know something. When it comes time to explain it, we can’t put ourselves in another’s shoes. This is the Curse of Knowledge.
But it goes deeper. Austin Kleon pointed me to an article by Greg Elbow called “Maybe Academics Aren’t So Stupid After All”, which provides a smart look at why academics struggle with being understandable, especially in speech. Elbow, author of Vernacular Eloquence, deems the condition “sentence interruptus”. He writes:
No, the chaos that bedevils the speech of so many academics takes the form of frequent interruptions in the flow of speech — interruptions that come from imperious intrusions into our minds of other thoughts. Before one sentence is finished, we break in with “well but, that isn’t quite it, it’s really a matter of…”. Academics often can’t finish one sentence or thought before launching into a related one.
I’m sure you’ve seen this in action. Elbow relates it to how he was taught in graduate school:
When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:
X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.
In some ways, the same critical thinking and awareness of criticism that helps academics earn respect among their peers and have fruitful careers inhibits how they present ideas to people outside their profession. It becomes a habit that’s hard to break. Elbow continues...
We are trained as academics to look for exceptions, never to accept one idea or point of view or formulation without looking for contradictions or counter examples or opposing ideas. Yet this habit gets so internalized that we often don’t quite realize we are doing it; we just “talk normally” — but this normal is fractured discourse to listeners.
By discussing the exceptions, the alternative views, the conflicting research, one can present a more accurate and defensible position. This style of communication is valuable and needed, especially in academia where defense of an idea can be paramount.
However, there is a difference between being accurate and understandable. When understanding is the goal, we sometimes have to trade a bit of accuracy for understanding and realize that without a foundation of basic understanding, the details don’t matter for most people. That’s why we need better explanations. Part of Elbow's point is that writing is way to solve the speaking problem and I agree. Writing an explanation forces you to think differently about it and start to see how it could be improved in speech or whatever media you choose.