2013, a year declared by the United Nations as the “Year of the Quinoa” and one in which the world’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, almost ended its 540-year history, is off to a rather eventful start for me and I’m sure many of you. My New Year’s resolution for 2013: work on and improve my explanation skills.
We’ve all experienced the dreaded blank stares or awkward silence when communicating a new idea or giving a presentation or have been on the receiving end trying to just “get through” someone’s pitch. No one wins in both situations and important information sometimes gets missed.
So, what do great explainers have in common? Empathy. That’s according to author Lee LeFever in his book, “The Art of Explanation”. The act of explaining is as natural to us as running but as with running, there are mechanics that must be learned to make it all worthwhile and smooth. I recently took up the book and although some points are obvious (so obvious that I won’t provide examples), the author does provide a fresh perspective on “explanation”. Speaking on the lack of empathy problem, LeFever talks about the “curse of knowledge” that many of us suffer from, which is when we know a subject so well that we can’t imagine what it’s like to not know it. The analogy the author uses would be a person tapping on a table to a song in his/her head and expecting someone else to know what song he/she is thinking of just by the table taps.
The author also introduces the idea of using an “explanation scale” model when it comes time to planning, packaging, and presenting an idea or a topic; I will provide some high level examples of the model later, but I recommend reading the book for more details. Using the explanation scale, LeFever explains the difference between looking smart vs. making others feel smart and more importantly, looking smart within our bubbles/circles vs. making others, who live outside our bubbles/circles, feel smart.
LeFever’s Explanation Scale (simplified!)
First, picture your audience member(s) as being on some “understanding” scale from A-Z or 1-5, etc. The goal is to move your audience from their current position on the scale to whatever your target is on the scale, which is typically where you and your level of understanding reside. In other words, how do you get the non-geeks on the same page as you and your team, the geeks.
While many of us understand the above concept of “knowing your audience”, what’s challenging is creating an explanation that a diverse audience will appreciate. Some of us focus on pleasing the experts in the room,
while others make no assumptions of the audience and start from the basics before going into the details.
It is highly improbable that a presenter can make everyone in the room happy if the audience is very diverse, but LeFever offers the following tips that can be used when framing a presentation.
In the above diagram, there are elements of explanations that work best for various levels of understanding. Each element has its own technical definition, which LeFever provides to the reader. According to LeFever, It’s important that each element is packaged as a standalone and not intertwined at random points along the scale. “Connections” and “Stories” often complement each other or can be used interchangeably. Knowing when to use one over the other or which one to use first is key. For example, imagine you had the idea for Groupon and you had to pitch it to some investors. Would you explain the concept of Groupon by starting with a story of how it would work or by first making the connection that it is a new way of looking at something old: coupons?
These visuals below help get LeFever’s points across on how to approach various people along your explanation scale.
Imagine how different an organization, amidst a world of information overload, would operate if it had a great explanation culture. So how do you think others perceive you as an explainer?
It’s important to note that presenting and explaining are not viewed as being the same.