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The Art of Explanation: An Interview With Lee LeFever

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I've been told that I explain technical things well to non-technical audiences. I learned long ago that communication skills were as -- if not more -- important than intelligence, and it turns out that I'm not the only one who feels this way. I sat down with Lee LeFever, founder and Chief Explainer at Common Craft, to talk about his new book, The Art of Explanation.

Why did you decide to write The Art of Explanation?

Explanation is a fundamental communication skill. We do it every day. It plays a huge role in our communications, but we rarely take a step back and think about explanation as something that can be learned and improved. I believe that everyone has the potential to become a better explainer and see real benefits. That's why I wrote The Art of Explanation. I want to help people rethink how they communicate ideas.

How did you become an expert at explaining things?

A combination or factors. I've always been passionate about communication and in 2003 I founded Common Craft as a consulting practice focused on online communities. The company name is based on the idea that communication is the most common craft we have. In 2007 we were the first to popularize explainer videos online, starting with "RSS in Plain English." Since then, we've worked with brands like Intel, Google, LEGO and Microsoft on explanations and built our own library of ready-made video explanations for educators. In all, our videos have been viewed over 50 million times. Through all this, we became students of explanation and realized that the lessons we learned were not limited to video -- they were fundamental communication skills.

Why do explanations fail?

We are not very good at making accurate assumptions about what other people know or understand. It's these assumptions that are at the root of many failed explanations. We assume the audience knows more than they do, or that they see connections that are obvious to us. This causes us to leave out context and basic ideas that help people feel confident. When confidence erodes, explanations fail. We're also prone to putting an emphasis on looking smart, when explanations should instead help the audience feel smart.

What three pieces of advice would you give an entrepreneur before they present to a potential investor?

I like to think about an explanation as a package of ideas that is built with a specific audience in mind. The challenge of any presenter is to package ideas into explanations that make people care about their topic. I suggest three things for an investment pitch:

1. Build Context. Come to an early agreement about a problem or pain that exists. Give the investors a reason to say "I know that feeling!" and introduce the product as a solution to it. Keep those heads nodding. Talk about the forest first, then talk about the trees.

2. Tell a story about a person who is in pain, uses the product and is now relieved. Pick two or three major features and show why it makes sense, to that person, that those features exist. Stay away from details and technical jargon and focus on the problem that is solved. Focus on the "why" before the "how."

3. Use analogies and connections. Connect the product to something they already know. Give them a starting point for thinking about the big idea of your product. As I mention in the book, the producers of the movie Alien pitched it as "Jaws in Space." Connect your product in a similar way.

What is one piece of advice you would give someone who struggles explaining their ideas effectively?

My advice is to think about explanation as a tool, something that can be applied to solve a problem. When understanding is essential, take the time to write down your explanation so you can think through the flow and how you package ideas. A little planning goes a long way. By taking a step back, writing out the big ideas and thinking about explanation as a tool, you'll find ways to improve.

You've said before that the book can help people become an explanation specialist. What does it mean to be an explanation specialist?

Organizations rely on specialists every day. When your work computer breaks, an IT specialist helps. When a customer has a problem, a support specialist can help. But where do organizations turn when they need to make something more understandable? I think every organization needs a person or team who is skilled in the art of explanation and can work with executives, marketers, internal teams and support to make ideas easier to understand in any department.