For every concept you want to convey, there is a scale of understanding (from those who’ve never heard of it, to those who have PhDs in it). In many cases, those who really understand something well have trouble putting themselves into the shoes of others who are just setting out to learn it. This is why it is often hard to give a stranger directions when they don’t know the local streets or landmarks. The key to good explanation is: empathizing with your audience.

In May, I had the pleasure of seeing Lee LeFever speak at WebVisions 2013 in Portland, Oregon. His session, “The Art of Explanation,” was about crafting explanations in video form and it delivered my favorite takeaways from the show. I’d like share a few of these juicy insights with you, because they inform my multimedia work for CDT.

The core insight he shared was that “Explanation is basically designed communication.” Like other fields of design, anyone can work at and improve their ability to explain things. You can also start with few rules of thumb from an expert to get started.

About 6 years ago, LeFever gained some acclaim for his “RSS in Plain English” video. His team at Common Craft have gone on to offer dozens of short approachable videos for educational institutions and large corporations (Google, etc.). I recommend looking through his other YouTube videos if you have time.

Here are some basic steps towards building a good explanation:

Step 1) Figure where the recipient falls on the scale of understanding.
Step 2) Decide where you want them to end up on the scale. You may not want to take them all the way.
Step 3) Take the time to build context. Easing into the concept builds confidence in the curious party, and gets them agree to follow your explanation. (Jam Handy was a master at this, exemplified by his 1937 explanation of the the differential)
Step 4) Offer a story. People are often intimidated by this, but you don’t have to craft The Lord of the Rings. All a story needs is the involvement of a character.
Step 5) Make a connection or analogy to things they already know. This is why elevator pitches for unprecedented movies tend to reference established franchises and concepts. Ridley Scott couldn’t get Alien (1979) made for years, until he started pitching it as “Jaws in Space.”
Step 6) Seek the audience’s agreement. Basically offer a handshake at the end, to let them know the interaction is over and that you care how it went. With video you can’t gauge their reaction, but it’s wise to show some sign that you hope it went well.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope you’ll agree that these are fascinating things to keep in mind as you craft a simple video for your students! As we create new animations that leverage these concepts for Ecampus, I hope to check back in with these ideas. I’ll offer more examples and insights into how designed communication can help instructors explain complicated things online.

If you’d like to share your thoughts and discuss this further, please leave a comment below. Also, you might be interested to read that LeFever recently released a book called “The Art of Explanation” and recommended:

  • Made to Stick,” which covers “The Curse of Knowledge” that keeps many from being able to empathize well with their audience.
  • The Back of the Napkin,” about leveraging simple drawings.
  • Resonate,” which covers the art of making strong connections with your audience through visuals.
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