Explanations Answer the Question “Why?”
Many facts and ideas we see everyday cannot be defined by laws of the universe. We cannot, for example, explain Twitter’s popularity in terms of gravity or inertia. We need explanations to tell us why Twitter is so popular, or why it makes sense to save for retirement.
Explanation is the art of packaging facts and presenting them in a way that answers “why?”—as in, why does it make sense to do this? Or why should I care?
Explanations Make People Care
Explanations have a different goal: to present an idea in a way that makes people care. Explanations grab their attention and let them see an idea from a personal perspective so they can make informed decisions about learning more.
Twitter is a great example. The facts concerning Twitter are fairly simple: you post updates about what’s going on in your life and read updates from others. The problem is that the facts did a poor job of presenting the value of engaging in these kinds of online interactions. Most people who heard about Twitter for the first time had essentially the same reaction: “Why would I want to do that?”.
Here’s the explanation of Twitter in Plain English.
Thanks to Twitter, it’s possible to share short, bite-sized updates about your life and follow the updates of people that matter to you via the web. Yaay! Here’s how it works.
Meet Carla. She’s addicted to her mobile phone, reads blogs every day and has contacts all over the world. She heard about Twitter and was skeptical—she’s already overloaded with information. After some of her friends couldn’t stop talking about it, she gave it a try.
She signed up for free and saw that Twitter pages look a little like blogs with very short posts. Each page is personal and has updates from friends.
She got started by looking up her friends on Twitter.com. After finding a few, she clicked “follow” to start seeing their updates on her Twitter page. Within hours, she began to see a different side of people she chose to follow.
She didn’t know that Steven in Seattle was a baseball fan, or that Julia in London was reading a new investment book. The little messages from Twitter painted a picture of her friends, family, and co-workers that she’d never seen before—it was the real world.
Soon she became a fan of Twitter and posted updates every day. Her friends followed her updates and learned that she recently discovered a passion for Van Halen. They could see Carla’s life between blog posts and e-mails.
For Carla, Twitter worked because it was simple. The updates were always short—under 140 characters each. Plus, she could post updates and follow her friends using the Twitter website, software on her browser, a mobile phone, or instant messages. She wasn’t tied to one device.
By asking members to answer the question “what are you doing?” Carla found that Twitter brought her closer to people that matter to her—140 characters at a time.
Find out what your friends are doing at Twitter.com.
Words Can Hurt
A single word can make your explanation fail because it lowers confidence. One word has the power to move someone from interest to disinterest.
Think about it this way: you are at a new restaurant. As you open the menu, you start looking for dishes you’re already like or would like to try. You narrow the choices to three dishes, and ponder the elements of each:
- Sea bass with wild rice and greens
- Ribeye steak with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus
- Crab cakes with mushrooms and a French rémoulade
Although they all sound delicious, the third option feels like a risk. You have never seen the word rémoulade before, so you are not sure if you would like it. In reality, rémoulade is a lot like tartar sauce, but sounds much more appealing and sophisticated on a menu. However, for the uninformed, it represents a reason to disregard an entire dish.
Explanations fail when we are unable to translate the language of our work to the language of a possibly uninformed audience. The curse of knowledge changes our perceptions and makes it difficult to make accurate assumptions about what others may know.
Too often, we forget the power of building context when we explain ideas. The intimate communication style that helped us earn the respect of our peers and experts in our field is not necessarily a good option outside the bubble of our professions. We must recognize that others experience our explanations differently from outside the bubble.
Taking the time to build context means talking first about the forest and then about the trees. Done well, context makes it possible to invite experts and beginners alike to see ideas from a new, helpful perspective.
Storytelling Makes a Difference
Take a look at these two explanations:
A blog is a personal journal published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first. Blogs are usually the work of a single individual, occasionally of a small group, and often are themed on a single subject.
Meet Allison. She recently created a website where she posts her experiences in raising a puppy. Her website is an online journal, or blog, and every few days she posts a new entry that appears at the top of her page. This stream of entries lets her connect with dog lovers from around the world.
Notice the difference? This is essentially the same information, in a similar number of words, but the second example is a story. We don’t know much about Allison. However, we are innately attracted to information in this form. Allison is human, and although we know nothing about her, we can see ourselves in her.
The Importance of a Person
The simple inclusion of a human or personification can make a huge difference and invite people to see your ideas from a new, more natural perspective. As Al Tompkins wrote, “Viewers remember what they feel”.
We don’t necessarily need to be polished in storytelling. Our focus here is to add a human experience to the presentation of facts. Here’s the basic format of a story:
- Meet Bob; he’s like you
- Bob has a problem that makes him feel bad
- Now Bob found a solution, and he feels good!
- Don’t you want to feel like Bob?
The Power of an Analogy
The writers of the movie, Alien (1979), understood that it was inspired by Jaws and used this idea to pitch it. Rather than trying to introduce a completely new idea, they built onto existing knowledge and explained the movie as Jaws in space.
The key is focusing on ideas people already comprehend and building on them. If we can give the audience confidence that understanding is easy through connection, we can offer them an invitation to take more steps. It’s about saying “You know X, right? Well Y is like it, and here’s why…
Dan Roam’s 6 × 6 Rule
Dan Roam is a true luminary in the world of visual thinking, which is probably why his book Back of the Napkin is an international bestseller. According to Roam, you can classify any problem into six problem clusters:
- Who and what problems—challenges that relate to things, people, and roles
- How much problems—challenges that relate to measuring and counting
- When problems—challenges that relate to scheduling and timing
- Where problems—challenges that relate to direction and how things fit together
- How problems—challenges that relate to how things influence one another
- Why problems—challenges that relate to seeing the big picture
Below, you’ll see an example of a startup company that has developed a gadget that helps people track and share their fitness goals.
Each individual uses the product differently and these portraits help highlight that difference in story form.
Charts help visually explain why the company is adopting new strategies and goals.
By representing time visually, we reduce the words that can cause misunderstanding.
A map, compared with text, makes it easier to see and understand how a complex system fits together.
Like any company, this one is constantly trying to understand and explain why things are the way they are.
A multi-variable plot helps the company understand how they compare with its competitors.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine a world without visuals. When it comes to explaining our ideas, however, we fall back on what we readily know and have at our fingertips. Spreadsheets and bullet points are easy to create and have worked in the past.
Things have changed. There are new ways to think about our ideas as visuals make our explanations more impactful. The key is to get started today. Practice, develop, play. Only by diving in and trying it will we discover the power of visuals in our explanations.