The Power of Explanation and the Curse of Knowledge

Lee LeFeverThe ability to communicate clearly is so important for community professionals. We say this a lot, but we rarely break it down much beyond that. What we really mean is that you have to be able to explain things. Explanation is a skill.

How you explain something is as important as what you’re explaining. It impacts how well your message is understood and whether or not people will be supportive of it. Quality explanations make your life easier. Poor explanations make it harder.

When I need help explaining something, I turn to Lee LeFever, a pioneer in online explainer space as the founder of Common Craft. They have helped Google, Intel, LEGO, Ford, Twitter and others explain their products to the world. What many don’t know is that Common Craft was actually started as an online community consultant and Lee has a great background in the community space. We discuss:

  • Why you should create explainer videos for your community
  • How to explain changes and problems
  • The reasons that explanations fail

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If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Higher Logic.

Higher LogicBig Quotes

“It only takes a very vocal, unchecked minority of people in your community for your community to become known for that vocal, unchecked minority.” -@patrickokeefe

“[In 1999,] one of the biggest challenges was just convincing people that it was okay to write something on a website, that it was something that people could do, that you don’t need a PhD in computer science to write a note to someone using a website. That sounds crazy today, but at the time, it really was something that people had to overcome to see the utility of it.” -@leelefever

“The more we know about something, the deeper we get into a subject, the more inaccurate our assumptions get about people who don’t understand. This is an idea called the ‘curse of knowledge,’ … that your level of knowledge curses you and interferes with your ability to make accurate assumptions about your audience.” -@leelefever

“We never want to look dumb. It’s really hard for us to tell someone, ‘I don’t understand that, this doesn’t make sense to me.’ Imagine a meeting, someone raises their hand and says ‘I don’t understand,’ they’re taking a risk. It slows down the meeting, it may be offensive to the person who is communicating. It maybe shows that they’re not paying attention. So what happens? They fail silently. They clam up, they shrug and move on.” -@leelefever

“If your goal is to explain something, the best thing you can do is to put it on paper, or in a Word document. The act of writing forces you to see it from a different perspective. Where suddenly, when you have to pick the right word, you actually think through the process, and whether it ends up as a script for a video or not, I think, imagining a community member and writing a letter to them and starting that letter, ‘I’m gonna make this as easy to understand as I can,’ and then writing just a couple of paragraphs, it’ll change how you think about it.” -@leelefever

“There’s a difference between telling someone what a guideline is and why it makes sense that that guideline exists. I think that sometimes it’s too easy to say, ‘Here’s the guideline, please obey it,’ and not say, ‘This guideline exists so that we can do this,’ or whatever role it plays in the community. … I think it’s really important to not just state it, but make a case for it, ‘Why does it make sense? Why should they care about this policy?’ If you can get people to care and see why it makes sense, then they’re much more likely to listen to it.” -@leelefever

“Lawyers have a way of using language that’s very specific, because it’s how it fits into our legal system. … But then I’ve seen legal documents that have two columns, like ‘Here’s the thing we have to say legally,’ and then another column that says, ‘This is what it means.’ I wonder if there’s a model that could work [for community guidelines], ‘Here’s the short version, you can use this just as a reference if you want to look at what our policies are, but we’ve also provided this other column over here which builds context.'” -@leelefever

“We often think of explanation as a strategy for simplifying what we do or simplifying language, and I think that simplification is a worthy goal. Being able to use simplification as a strategy is good, but it’s kind of a tightrope. If you go too simple, if you think, ‘Okay, I’m going to explain this like they’re five-years-old,’ you get into a territory where you start to sound condescending, and nothing kills an explanation more than condescension. When someone thinks, ‘Oh, this person thinks I’m an idiot,’ then they will tune out almost immediately.” -@leelefever

About Lee LeFever

Lee LeFever is the founder of Common Craft and the Explainer Academy, an international keynote speaker and author of The Art of Explanation (Wiley, 2012). He is also credited with inspiring the online “explainer” video industry. In his work, he’s helped companies such as Google, Intel, LEGO and Ford to explain their products. His explainer videos have been viewed over 50 million times and licensed to professionals and organizations in over 50 countries. He lives in Seattle with his wife and business partner, Sachi.

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