SitePoint Podcast #188: The Art of Explanation with Lee LeFever
Episode 188 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week Patrick O’Keefe (@ifroggy) interviews Lee LeFever (@leelefever) from Common Craft about how their explaining videos came about, the community around Common Craft, his book The Art Of Explanation and more!
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SitePoint Podcast #188: The Art of Explanation with Lee LeFever(MP3, 54:54, 52.7MB)
Patrick and Lee talk about the place for creativity in explaining many things and how explanation (or sometimes the lack of it) can impact in so many areas of creativity and client relationships.
Browse the full list of links referenced in the show at http://delicious.com/sitepointpodcast/188.
Patrick: Hello and welcome to the SitePoint Podcast. This is Patrick O’Keefe and I’m doing an interview show today with my friend Lee LeFever. Lee is the founder and Chief Explainer at Common Craft, and he’s the author of a new book, The Art of Explanation: Making Your Ideas, Products, and Services Easier to Understand.
According to the Common Craft website they are on a mission, they want to make the world a more understandable place to live and work by helping professionals like you possibly become explanation specialists because more specialists mean better explanations. And that’s a good thing. Common Craft is married couple Lee and Sachi LeFever with Tom Bosco serving as a mascot.
I’ve known Lee for a while and it’s great to have him on the show. Lee, welcome to the SitePoint Podcast.
Lee: It’s great to be here Patrick, thanks.
Patrick: My pleasure. I want to talk about a few different areas of your life and your business, Common Craft, and a little bit on online community and of course explanation. So first the business, Common Craft. I mentioned how Common Craft is just you and Sachi, and for the record, on the cover of the book, is that you and Sachi to the right?
Lee: Yeah, that is an image that has been with us for a few years. I re-did it for the book but it is meant to be me and Sachi.
Patrick: Okay, now who’s that other third guy, is he like a creepy guy who follows you around pointing at his head, or who is that person?
Lee: Just a little more Common Craft art.
Patrick: Awesome, so one of the cool things about Common Craft, and there’s a number of cool things about Common Craft, but you’ve spoken about how important lifestyle is as a priority for you as a business. Specifically being small and happy. To me, Common Craft is at least to some extent a lifestyle business. You’re successful but you never want to be successful at the cost of sacrificing your independent lifestyle.
That sometimes can be hard for some people to understand, because they think that you should always want to be bigger, bigger, bigger. But bigger can come with a cost, and it’s been interesting to watch Common Craft grow while also seeing you negotiate that cost and maintain your mission. I wanted to ask you to speak a little bit about that negotiation with the cost of sacrificing that lifestyle but also growing and how you’ve been able to accomplish your goals.
Lee: Yeah, definitely, that’s a great question. Common Craft started in 2003 with me being an independent consultant and then when Sachi joined in 2007 we became a two-person company and that’s when we started making the videos for which we’re known now. From the very beginning of that whole transition into videos we saw some opportunities to be a sort of home-based business of two people. After doing that for a little while we realized that because we have made this choice to be small and to be home-based, our happiness matters a lot.
If we’re not happy, if work is not making us happy, then that means that our whole life is not happy. So we started to think about how could we build a business like Common Craft that would pay the bills and help us earn a good living but also make sure that we’re happy and love our work and feel good about what we’re doing. The more we looked at that we thought about how we could build a studio and have employees, but it just wasn’t something that we felt like fit with what we wanted on a personal level.
We’re sort of fiercely independent in that way. We want to be the masters of our domain I think. While there might be a lot of opportunity to make a lot more videos and to grow a business, I think that the way that you put it in the introduction is that does have a cost. It may mean that Common Craft is not going to be a $20 million company in five years, but it means that we’ll be happy I think if we choose to stay small.
But what’s missing about that is that if you’re a small business that chooses to stay small, then usually that comes with real factors in terms of what kind of business you can really be in. We used to make custom videos and that was a business that made good money for us but it wasn’t scalable. There was no what to make more custom videos without hiring people. That constraint helped us see the opportunity to start licensing videos.
That was a model that we could make our own videos and manage the whole process of making and licensing the videos and scale to thousands and thousands of people given the right opportunities. So I think our size helped us see these opportunities that I think have helped us be successful over the last couple of years.
Patrick: So between you and Sachi, how are your roles divided?
Lee: I think that Sachi and I are really different people, and I think that comes through in our work. Sachi is very detail-oriented and really great at analytical strategic kinds of things. I’m much more big picture, idea-
creative kind of person.
Patrick: Got it.
Lee: And that’s really how it happens in Common Craft, I set the creative direction and get started on new videos and blog posts and things, and she’s the one that really shapes it into something that’s ready for prime time.
Patrick: And you draw the art, right?
Lee: Yeah, I do.
Patrick: And you’re the voice. But I think what you’re kind of alluding to is that Sachi does a lot of those behind-the-scenes things. I think I either heard you say in the interview that you did with Chris Brogan, or mention it in the book that she is behind the scenes by choice.
Lee: That’s true. She wants me to be the face of the company; she doesn’t have an interest in being that public face of the company. But I always want people to know that just because she’s not the face of the company doesn’t mean that she’s not responsible for everything she… People might underestimate the amount of value and everyday good things that come from Sachi. She’s behind some of our best ideas and it’s a real team thing. It’s certainly not just me, even though it might appear that way.
Patrick: Right, and that’s the same for a lot of different businesses, whoever’s out front tends to be associated with the brand, but to make that happen there’s always people behind the scenes doing a lot of the work. Another interesting thing about Common Craft to me has been the revenue models over the years and how you’ve experimented with them. You mentioned this a moment ago about custom videos. You know that’s kind of how you started with the custom client videos and as you described you found it wasn’t scalable.
Not without adding people or adding overhead, which you wanted to avoid. I’m not going to have the precise timeline here, but I know that you stepped back from that and focused on video licensing. You didn’t really do custom videos for a while. Then I think you did a few more, and then you launched your subscription model, which itself has matured over time. I love how you’ve experimented with the different business models and how you’ve tried new things.
For me, that’s where it is, that’s the only way you find out what the limits are and what you can make and what’s best for you is to experiment. Then of course you have the Explainer Network. I’d like to walk through that a little bit. You mentioned the custom videos, and then you moved more to licensing videos. What led to that focus?
Lee: We’ve always made videos that are our own videos. The first videos we became known for were RSS in Plain English and Wikis in Plain English. Those videos weren’t about products, they were about these ideas. We continued to build a library of videos that were like that without really a big business model in mind. But what started to happen pretty quickly was teachers and trainers and librarians were saying hey, can I use this for my work?
We started to think wow, maybe there’s a business here, maybe there’s a model here where we can give these teachers, trainers and librarians a better version of the video or tools for making the video more useful and relevant to them that they can’t get anywhere else and that will allow us to make money in that way. Originally we had an ala carte sort of iTunes model where you put in a credit card, pay 20 bucks, download a video file, then you could use it for training.
That eventually, about a year ago, morphed into a membership service where you become a member of Common Craft and then have access to our library of 50 videos that you can embed and download at any time. It’s always-on access to our library.
Patrick: I was just looking at the membership in preparation for this interview. I already knew about it obviously, but just updating myself on what you’ve made available now and what you’re pricing was. It’s very affordable for people to access the videos and be able to embed them. For the whole library it’s only $159 a year, which is $12 a month or something like that?
Lee: It’s not too much.
Patrick: It’s a really small figure for the quality programming. Then you just recently started the DIY explainer thing, which I want to talk about which is licensing your artwork to people to use in presentations and to use in their own explanations.
Lee: That’s right.
Patrick: You mentioned in the interview you did with Chris Brogan capitalizing on the wave of people who, to put it in a flattering way, who want to be like you. It’s like be like Mike, except it’s Common Craft. I think that was a really interesting move. What did you see that made you say okay, we’re not just going to give the videos we want to give people access to our library of art work that we’ve drawn ourselves and use in our work?
Lee: Sure. I think that a lot of our decisions in the direction that Common Craft takes comes from the feedback that we’re getting from fans and users and customers out there. Making our cutouts available, which are digital images just like the ones in our videos, came from seeing a number of people contact us and say is there anyway you can provide images? I’m looking for something like Common Craft artwork that’s going to make my presentation or explanation remarkable.
Another thing we’ve been seeing, which I think is really something we’re excited about is teachers are doing projects with students that use a video camera and paper cutouts in what they call Common Craft-style videos. If you go on YouTube and type in Common Craft Style, you’ll see literally hundreds of videos that students have done on biology or history or whatever it is. Those same teachers have come to us and said hey, if you can provide anything at all that would help this process, then it’s something that I think people would love.
So we see it being teachers, trainers or anybody that’s just looking for honestly an alternative to stock photography and clip art. People put that stuff in presentations every day, and I think that Common Craft artwork has happened to evolve into its own sort of brand of visuals. I think we have a lot of potential to make it a more useful thing for people.
Patrick: Yeah and I just went to YouTube and typed in the phrase Common Craft Style and there’s 1,150 results that come up. A lot of students as you mentioned, Common Craft-style Hunger Games, Common Craft-style Adam’s Onus Treaty, Common Craft-style election of 1824. I can share a similar feeling with the people who take certain things from my book and then use it on their communities, but that has to make you feel a certain way, it’s extremely touching.
I don’t even know what the question is, but it has to mean a lot to you to see that taking to your style of artwork and then associating it with you and giving you credit and saying that we want to be like that.
Lee: Yeah. I think that we both feel honored by it. There’s a difference between teachers and students doing it in the classroom and some marketing company somewhere selling it to their client. We love the idea of students and teachers being inspired by Common Craft. We love the idea of advertising agencies being inspired, but I think we have a lot better feelings about the students and teachers.
I think the students and teachers are much more likely to say that they were inspired by Common Craft and maybe give us some credit for that inspiration, but that doesn’t always happen.
Patrick: I know what you mean. Speaking to that, is there a limitation to DIY explainer stuff and what people can do with the artwork?
Lee: Yeah. Our biggest one is no re-selling. You can’t become a member, download the images and then repackage them and sell them in some other way. That could even mean doing client work as a video producer.
Patrick: That’s what I was curious about.
Patrick: Which makes sense. Because it’s only $49 a year, like what type of person are you that’s going to do that and then sell it as an explainer video to your clients?
Lee: Yeah, it’s true. But there is an exception there where if there is a company that has identified Common Craft-style as they want to make a video in that style, they can become a member and make a video on their own for their product. They just can’t offer that as a service to others. So that’s one take on it.
Another take is that if a video producer has a client that’s saying I want to do Common Craft-style, then that video producer can work on that video, but their client has to purchase licensing from us. So each client has to be a Common Craft customer in order to be able to do that video. Then there’s pricing things we have to work out around that, but that’s sort of the basic idea right now.
Patrick: Makes sense. I thought this was really smart. Also, it’s really smart to do the Explainer Network when you have this need to stay small, but then you have people who want videos. You just don’t have time because it’s only two people, there’s only so much time in the day, so you identified people who do work at the level of quality that you can recommend and then they pay to be in this network of explainers that you then refer to potential clients.
Lee: Yeah. That came out of a very fortunate set of circumstances. When we first started making videos, we made a couple of high-profile videos by 2007. One was Google Docs in Plain English which was seen millions of times and it created a lot of demand for what we do. And even if we grew some it would still be hard to service that demand. We started thinking, if there’s this demand we have to find a supply. That was where the Explainer Network came from.
It’s been around for over four years now. It really was just a place to try to find a supply for people who were looking for this kind of video. To our surprise, it works. We just added three new members recently who are currently testing it out, but I have faith that they will hang around. We have our first member from Latin America, which I think is interesting who does a lot of work in Spanish.
Patrick: Very cool. Do you still do any custom videos? If someone comes to you and wants the full Common Craft, legitimate, here’s a pile of money, we want you. Do you still do those videos?
Lee: I think that it’s a possibility, but it’s not something that we’ve done in a long time. We do do custom videos and we’re working on something right now for instance, but it’s because of a very special relationship. Since 2008-2009, we’ve had a relationship with Intel, and specifically Intel HR. They need explanations of what’s going on with their stock program, and what their high-deductible health program and all these things.
That is sort of our big customer client that we work with a lot. That allows us to do that business while at the same time having the public face of Common Craft be our membership.
Patrick: Okay. Competition, you started something here, I don’t even know if there was someone out there who was doing this before you in a similar way, I just see a lot of companies that came after. I wonder if these companies owe their lives to you. I wonder how you view competition in this explainer space, which from my outside perspective is growing and is very popular and hot right now. There’s a lot of people who want to be in this space and want to make explainer videos. What is your perspective of competition as a whole and this emerging? Do you call it an industry?
Lee: I do. Maybe say like a cottage industry. It’s not a big thing, but I do agree that it’s growing, there’s a lot more of an emphasis on explanation and on explainer videos. There’s a lot of companies out there who I think are slapping the label explainer video on videos that are really just marketing. So there’s that side of it where being the person that wrote a book about explanation I have strong ideas about what an explanation is and isn’t and I don’t want it to get co-opted by sales people too much.
Explanation certainly has a role in sales, but I worry that we might get away from the actual goal, which is to make something easy to understand. But that’s not really an answer to your question. In terms of competition, my personal view is that I want to see the industry be successful. I want there to be more explainers. I’m very serious when I say I want the world to be a more understandable place. To get there we need more explainers.
I don’t look at these video producers that are making explanation videos as competition to Common Craft necessarily. I maybe look at them as competition to members of our Explainer Network, but that’s not my thing to worry about, that’s their thing.
Patrick: They’re your children.
Patrick: You don’t have to agree with me.
Lee: I don’t know if I’d put it in quite those terms, but I think that when we first started making the videos I read a book called Blue Ocean Strategy that’s a pretty well-known business book these days. I still look at Common Craft as a company who is driven, who’s always looking for that next blue ocean. I was doing online community consulting before doing the videos, and the videos came from that. The videos were our blue ocean because that was right before everybody became a social media consultant.
Then we started making videos and now there’s a lot of explainers out there. We’re not competing directly with them, that’s become a red ocean. Now our blue ocean is helping people be better communicators. Sure, that’s a red ocean in some ways too, but we have our own way of doing that and our own brand of visuals and know-how and library of videos that I think is unique. I don’t know of any other company right now that’s doing that specific thing. That’s kind of from a higher level how we look at how we’ve evolved.
Patrick: I knew you from the online community days and you mentioned the idea of marketers, nothing against them, but co-opting the idea of explanation when it’s really just a marketing promotional video. Even though you’re not as hyper into online community space as you used to be, I’m sure you can see that happening with online community also because I know I do.
Lee: Yeah, sure.
Patrick: This kind of thing where social media marketing is being called online community and it’s kind of getting into that same kind of realm. So I can relate to you on that level. One other question I want to ask you about business before we move on to something else. You kind of touched on this, but this is something I’m seeing and the wave of cheap explanation videos, okay? I’m very pro-market, capitalism and all that stuff. I like money, I believe in making it. I believe in offering good service and getting paid as much as you can while sustaining the market.
But it just seems like more and more there’s a lot of these cheap, cookie cutter explanation video things coming along. There’s someone I know who’s an acquaintance of mine who has this service and he’s moving in and I just look at him like you, how dare you. Don’t do that. That’s not good; just send people over to Common Craft. Is this a trend you’re seeing too?
You mentioned people putting out explainer videos that are not really in your view explanations, is this a trend that you see a lot as well as kind of cheapening the videos and these companies and services that are pumping out a lot of cheap, repetitive explanation videos?
Lee: You know I kind of see both sides. I think that there’s a lot of talent, hard work and effort that goes into really great video and video production. That’s something that people will always pay for is high-
quality work. I think that’s a reason our members at the Explainer Network have been successful is they do great work and they are craftsmen and artists and really care about it. But at the same time there are huge numbers of people who are struggling with ways to get their message heard or their ideas understood.
They can’t afford to hire a high-end video explanation company. They realize that PowerPoint is just not doing the trick anymore. I think those people are starting to look at what else is out there. There are a number of products that are trying to get the same outcomes that we always depended on PowerPoint for, but doing it in a different way. An example is a start-up out of Israel, I believe, called PalTunes. They’re aiming for the PowerPoint market by giving professionals with mainstream computer skills the ability to make their own animated video.
Whether it’s an explanation or not, it’s a platform for communicating. I think that’s a good thing. I think that having a variety of tools and a variety of platforms for getting a message out there that’s remarkable and unique and engaging is good. But there’s also a difference between platforms and skills. I think that’s a big reason why we wrote the book is because the best platform in the world is not going to make you a good explainer. It actually takes understanding what an explanation is.
That’s where we see fitting into that world. Yes, there’s an explosion of tools that help you communicate, that’s great, but what about how you communicate? The tools are only part of the equation.
Patrick: Makes sense. You mentioned explanations and how some things are not explanations. I was reading the book and I saw that, okay that’s a definition, I’ll remember that. This is a description, and those are both not explanations. I better keep this straight so when I see Lee next time I want to make sure I don’t use the wrong terminology.
Lee: Oh, I think they are much softer than that. I think I follow that section up to say that doesn’t mean that these things can’t be explanations; it’s just that alone they’re not. But anyway.
Patrick: Right, I got it. I think I remember you saying that. I knew you before all this explanation stuff and I love that fact. I remember Common Craft, the community consultancy and you were an online community manager in the healthcare industry from 1998 to 2003 according to your LinkedIn profile. I site my source because if I’m wrong it’s your LinkedIn profile that’s wrong, it’s not me.
Lee: I would say that that is my tenure at that company and for the last three years was when I was the online community manager.
Patrick: Got it. Okay, so what I’m leading into here is that industry did exist back before 2005. You’re an example I can point to that and always continue to say that to people that this isn’t in the last couple years.
Lee: It’s true.
Patrick: Then of course you did some community consulting. I was curious to ask you how important or unimportant has your community building background been in fostering Common Craft to a wider audience?
Lee: You know that’s a really good question. One of the first things online or in my professional life that I was really truly passionate about was the idea of online communities. That you could solve a lot of problems by being able to communicate with a group of people that are also passionate about what you do. Businesses could engage customers in all these new ways and I still believe that that’s amazingly powerful and we’ve seen huge change out of that.
But it’s a bit ironic that when we looked at Common Craft and Common Craft’s potential to do that, we saw it through the lens of what we can do as a two-person company. What’s going to drive our business? Everything came down to a choice at that time, are we going to get more bang for our buck by doing this or by making videos? Because it’s a constraint, you’ve got to make choices. We saw the potential to use social media to increase the awareness of our brand, to always be out there and talk to people about what’s happening and offer ways to communicate to people about Common Craft, but not necessarily have a goal of creating an online community around Common Craft or around the videos.
I think we saw the company having different goals. I’m sure you would agree that that’s what community success depends on, does it solve the goal you’re trying to solve? And our goal was not to necessarily have a big community of people, but to be a successful video explanation company. Being a small company meant that we had to think about that differently.
Patrick: Mainly you want to connect with the right people, connect with the people who will like what you’re doing. It’s not about everyone; it’s about your focused audience.
Lee: That’s right.
Patrick: I just got an idea as I was sitting here because I recently wrote something about how people can use videos to explain features of the community and they could just use your artwork. That would be helpful, they should pay for that.
Patrick: So a little bit about book writing. Common Craft, as you’ve explained here, is a very independent company. Now you write a book, and you go with a major publisher. Why?
Lee: Good question. We looked at that really closely. One thing that I think was part of that decision was a couple of years before we wrote the book Wiley contacted me expressing interest. I wasn’t really in that frame of mind at the time, but I saved the information and thought more about it later. Two years after that I wrote back to the same person who was actually the editor of my book, Lauren at Wiley, and said hey I’m interested, are you guys still interested?
She said yes, I present on Tuesday. Give me a proposal and I’ll talk to people about it. So I wrote to her and we started going down that path or at least considering that path and I think that for my first book I put a priority on working with a major publisher because of a couple of things. For one, I wanted to know the process; I wanted to know what does it take to work with a publisher. And I wanted to have that be a part of my professional life that I worked with a major publisher on a book, I was a published author.
Self publishing obviously has benefits too, but that’s a big differentiator in my mind is that I made it over that bar. The bar of convincing a publisher to actually accept the book. So far I think it’s great. They’ve offered us a number of opportunities that I don’t think would have been possible otherwise. But I always keep the possibility open of going and doing my own thing having done this.
Patrick: Yeah I felt the same way when I was coming out with my book and just wanting to be with a publisher that was as big as possible or at least in the best situation possible. For the same reason, it’s a stamp of legitimacy, right? I have nothing against self publishing, we just self-
published a book this year that was sponsored by someone, but with the first book, it’s almost like, and it sounds condescending, but if I wanted to I could self-publish a book with the letter K.
Lee: That’s true.
Patrick: If I wanted to I could just publish a book of the letter K and call it the K Book, have it out and available tomorrow. That sounds really condescending, but my point is that I can put anything I want out there. It’s like I have a blog, okay, whoopdie-doo. What is that worth? There’s tons of great self-published books, but for you to have the stamp of approval that a publisher said hey, we’re going to put 50 grand in money, time, staff effort, 100 grand, whatever it is. Because it takes a lot of staff hours to put a book together.
I think my publisher’s process is probably shorter now, they have downsized a little bit, but when I had my book I had four rounds of editors, a copy editor, an associate editor, somebody who reconfigured the organization of the book, the executive editor. There’s all these people, and they’re all spending time on the book, and they all have to be paid. Then there’s sales people, there’s designers, and people I haven’t even heard of probably. Then my advance and everything else that goes into it. That is something worth having that stamp of approval that says hey, I was good enough for them to say we’re going to get behind your project.
Lee: Yeah, definitely. It’s slightly analogous to venture funding for a startup. The moment you get even half a million dollars or millions of dollars, that is validation. Somebody believed in that idea. That’s something that helps.
Patrick: Right, definitely. And of course the access. That’s the same thing I say, when I talk to different authors, that’s the same thing I say, the same thing you basically said, same thing they say is it comes down to two things, the second thing is access to the bookstores because there’s still that gatekeeper there. That’s kind of the one main middle man thing that major publishers have is my book was in every Barnes & Noble in the country. Not everyone can say that. There is value there that it was in bookstores.
In the future I can go on and do whatever I want, but I’ll always have that.
Lee: Yes, that’s right.
Patrick: Now you’re intellectual property is featured heavily in the book, your drawings. Not just your writing. My book was just my writing in there; you have your writing plus your artwork. How did that factor into your negotiations?
Lee: It’s a good question. Honestly, at the point that we were signing contracts and everything for the book, it was not fleshed out what the book would actually contain. I think that Wiley has actually been great to work with in terms of that. From their perspective in terms of how I use the intellectual property and that sort of thing, they just want to make sure that I’m not offering any competition to book sales. As long as I’m not impacting the potential to sell books by giving things away somehow, then it’s really not a big deal.
I was worried about that early on because there’s this thing called the explanation scale. In the book and it’s a really simple idea it’s not something that a big consulting company would send out armies of lawyers to try to protect.
Patrick: You haven’t filed a patent yet is what you’re saying you haven’t filed for the patent just yet.
Lee: Yeah, that’s right. I was worried about this is in the book, does it mean I can’t use it on my website or I can’t use it in some other way? My editor just said no, don’t worry about that, that’s your copyright. As long as it’s not competing with book sales you can use your stuff, those are your ideas.
Lee: So that made me feel better about that. I feel free right now, maybe I’ll hear something from them later, but right now I don’t feel restricted at all. I feel like that artwork that’s in the book is something that I can use in a number of ways. Not to mention that those images are black and white, and when you color it, it becomes a different thing.
Patrick: Right, okay. I was just curious about that. So let’s talk about explanation a little more, and one of the things I wanted to ask you. Throughout time, who are your favorite explainers?
Lee: Throughout time? Wow.
Patrick: Throughout time. Like if you could hop in a time machine and see a few different people explain something, and it could be people who are living, who are the people that you look to and say those people, they could explain something.
Lee: Totally. I haven’t always looked at the world that way of course. Just in the last few years has it been a really big focus in terms of who do I think are the best. But I can talk some about what I see today. One of my favorite people, someone I love when I see him on TV is Neil deGrasse Tyson. If listeners don’t know, he’s the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, he’s an astrophysicist, and now a media figure.
But he’s one of these incredibly smart, accomplished people who is able to take something like astrophysics and make it graspable for everybody. Not only that, make people excited about it and interested in it. I say that he’s an ambassador to his profession because he’s able to explain things the way he does. I don’t think he would necessarily say that it’s an explanation skill that he has, but that’s how I put it.
I think that connects to another person named Richard Feynman who is actually known as the great explainer. He was also a physicist who is one of the most well-known physicists in the world partially because of his ability to take this really hairy physics problem and look at it in the way that a child would. To come at it from a direction nobody else is thinking about and explain it in a way that is not only accurate but makes it fundamentally easy to understand.
I love to see these people who are so smart, because that’s really the problem with explanation. We all have the curse of knowledge. We know so much that we lose the ability to understand what that idea looks like to someone else. Getting over that is really hard. When you see somebody who’s like a PhD-level physicist, they have the curse of knowledge really badly. When they’re able to overcome that and invite people to care about what they’re doing it’s a really special thing.
Just another quick example. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I think podcasts are a great format. Radio can be a great format for explanations. Couple of examples. Planet Money by NPR’s Alex Blumberg, those guys have been an excellent example of taking things like global finance and explaining it in a way that everyday people can understand.
Another one is Radio Lab. The Radio Lab podcasts is one of my favorites, and they take all sorts of different subjects and boil them down and tell stories and do all these wonderful media experiences with sound and voice that create explanations that are really remarkable.
That’s a big factor for me. It’s not enough just to make something understandable, the real opportunity is to make it remarkable. That happens through a combination of explanation and media.
Patrick: Well put. I like the way you mentioned the curse of knowledge and how important it is to be able to explain. Because in managing communities, one of the things that inevitably happens is you have to block someone or ban someone who knows things. Who actually has some intelligence and has some knowledge but their problem is that they can’t communicate it without being disrespectful or just can’t communicate it. They’re not helpful.
The thing that we try to celebrate on my communities and I know other people do too, is you don’t try to celebrate knowledge, but knowledge in someone who can actually offer the people in a way that adds value.
Patrick: I think that’s what it’s all about. We’ve all heard about the genius who’s just a jerk, right? Who can’t share his knowledge. That person is a poor explainer.
Lee: Something I would say about that is that especially in the academic world there is a real benefit, and it is something that is encouraged to look smart. You want to look smart. There’s incentives around that. But I think that the world that we live in now, it’s more beneficial for people who figure out a way to not only look smart but at the same time help others feel smart. That’s what I really thing explanations do, is to change that equation a little bit from looking inwardly and saying how can I look smart? To looking outwardly and saying how can I accomplish my goals and be successful by helping others feel smart? I think that’s how explanation fits in.
Patrick: Very good. I was curious to find out how you think this might extend to the field of entertainment. Specifically, are there any music artists or directors or comedians that you’re a fan of because of how they explain? How far is this explanation thing taken over your life, Lee? The field of entertainment, do you look at that as a field that really benefits from good explanations?
Lee: That’s an interesting question. One point that I thought of when you said that is how much has explanation become a part of my life, one of the things that I think is kind of funny is since thinking about writing the book, literally, and I mean that literally, every time someone says the word explanation or explain, my mind starts to figure out okay, what are they talking about? Let’s watch. He says he’s going to explain it, let’s see what’s there. It’s kind of an interesting perspective for that word to be a key word that all of a sudden means this thing in my life.
Let’s see, in terms of entertainment, I don’t know that I have much to say about entertainers using explanations, but there are a couple of examples of music and media being used to make explanations remarkable. There’s a guy named David Holmes who graduated from NYU, he was a part of J. Rosen’s Studio 2.0 project that focused on explanation in journalism. He started a company called Explainer Music, which is now partnered with Pando Daily and his company makes these explanations in the form of raps and songs and things like that that make them remarkable. They make them something that people want to watch and want to listen to.
One of the ones that made them well-known was the song that was an explanation of fracking, the natural gas process.
Patrick: I’m glad you elaborated on that.
Lee: Another one is called EconStories, I believe it’s EconStories.tv that did these awesome really-well produced raps that are about basic economics. Like Hayek versus Keynes in terms of supply-side or demand-side economics, but it’s done in the form of a rap. It really makes it clear, it’s a very engaging, remarkable thing. I love to see how music and media can be used not just to make something easy to understand, but actually get people engaged. That’s a key thing I think.
Patrick: Yeah. It’s part of everything really. I hate to put you on the spot and say entertainment, but explanation’s part of everything. If you can’t explain well, you could get fired. If you can’t explain well, you can get divorced. I don’t want to dramatize this too much, but if you can’t communicate and you can’t explain your actions, explain why something happened, then life will pass you by to some extent if you’re bad at it.
Lee: I really believe that. I think it’s one of the fundamental ideas from the book that we explain every day. There’s this thing that all of us are doing every day that we can actually get better, but very few of us have actually taken a step back and thought how do I explain something? What is my process for explaining something? I think that if people will take a step back and think about that a little bit they’ll see opportunities to get a little bit better.
That’s really all it takes is this realization that oh wow, I can actually do this better. This thing that I’m doing every day.
Patrick: One of the sections of the book that stood out to me was the one on context. I found myself drawn to it, especially the example of the public speaker, because I am a public speaker. You had the example of a speaker trying to cater to an audience of mixed experiences, which isn’t that every audience? The way that you quantified it in this story, was it Andre? I’m trying to remember the person’s name for some reason, I don’t know why I want to.
Patrick: You said think of it like this. Two people aren’t interested in what you have to say. Six are interested, but they’re beginners, then two are experts. I battle with that sort of thing all the time. What is stressful to me about it and I think to other speakers is that I find that the people who complain the most and the loudest in my experience tend to be experts. Or perceived experts who complain that they didn’t get anything out of the talk.
I haven’t had it happen a lot, but I’ve had people say on Twitter well I don’t know what I was here for I know all this stuff already. Or I actually had someone after a talk, and it actually went kind of well. I thought it went pretty well. Some people said they liked it, whatever. Came up to me afterwards right after you hop off stage–I could never do this to someone–
and said I don’t know what I was supposed to get out of that. I thought to myself, my goodness, couldn’t you have waited a little while? But I don’t know if that’s just my experience, but it’s difficult to kind of cater a talk in the way you laid out. The way you put it there made me think about it and how I’m going to think about it in the future to try and organize it in a certain way.
But that is such a challenging thing, to try to give a presentation at most any conference that actually helps beginners. That’s not the hard part to me, the hard part is doing both. Helping beginners, and then giving the experts something to stick around for that they say that was interesting or I learned that.
Lee: Yeah, definitely. It is a struggle, and I’ve struggled with that too. I hope that part of the book helps, but I realize that it doesn’t necessarily fit every situation. The kind of big idea there is to think about it in terms of cost. Not real quantifiable costs necessarily but you could even say pain or whatever. They’re like what?
Lee: What’s going to cause the worst outcome. If you take that group you were talking about with two who are uninterested, six that could be interested and two that are experts, then you have to think about where does my explanation begin? Does it begin at a point that allows all the six interested people to possibly gain an interest? Or does it start at a point where you’re not going to offend the experts by covering the basics?
The basic idea about that is that if you’ve ever learned something in class the second time, it may be a little bit annoying, but it really just validates what you know. It’s not offensive to you. But what’s offensive if you’re one of those six people and the explanation from the very beginning leaves you out, that’s a big cost to leave out eight people just because you want to look smart to the two.
That’s kind of how I think about it. I think everybody wants to look smart, and that doesn’t mean you can’t start with the basics. Make sure if you just spend a few minutes giving people a way to take that initial first step to understanding and not forgetting that you’re going to leave people if you focus too much on those experts.
Patrick: That makes sense. And maybe, just maybe, some of the experts should continue to attend the same conference talks over and over again expecting a different outcome. Just maybe.
Patrick: I wanted to ask you about what I think of as the infographic craze. Not that they’re new, because as you pointed out in the book they’re not. Infographics aren’t brand new, but it just seems like they’re a marketing trend. You see a lot of them are sponsored of course, or at least for the book I self-published that I put out this year was not my idea but we did it. I get pitched on infographics for my blog. I don’t know if it’s daily but it sure seems like it. People wanting me to share infographics, it’s just kind of a crazy thing right now, it seems that people are all invested in this medium.
I expect that to wane over time and for people to move on to the next thing, but for infographics still to exist as they have or have for a long time. What is your reaction to seeing the constant wave of infographics that we’re subjected too right now?
Lee: I don’t have really strong feelings about it. There’s something to it, but they see Common Craft as living in the same world as that. And visual thinking is another thing.
Patrick: Smack those people.
Lee: I think that we’re writers. Our work, the videos specifically, rely on writing and voice over. That’s a different thing than looking at a graphic that you can hand somebody physically and ask them to look at. Anyway, that’s not what you’re looking for. I think that infographics can be effective. There are lots of examples of both good and bad infographics. I think it goes back to this remarkability factor where people just aren’t reading anymore.
They don’t want to look at a thousand word article if they can look at something interesting. The growth of infographics comes from that. I think it’s also being fueled by business where infographics is a form of content marketing that can help SEO. That’s what’s driving a lot of that industry right now is businesses who see it as a way to attract attention. I think it can and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that.
That’s a good thing as long as it’s well done and it’s quality work and it has actual facts and is not misleading or that sort of thing. I’m not really that engaged in that world, probably not as much as people think I would be.
Patrick: I’m sorry for the terrible question. No, I totally get it. I agree, you’re diplomatic like me. You can see both sides of the thing, I don’t see them as good or bad either. As I was reading your book, one of the things that jumped out at me was, and I’m sure a lot of people feel this way but could use a better explanation is government. I just wonder what you think or what you might see, and I hate questions like this myself, but kind of the future of government and how important it is for the government to explain things to the people who they work for, more or less, or they are supposed to, to be able to explain what are very complex concepts, these bills, these acts that are hundreds of pages. That apparently some of the people who vote on them don’t always read them.
Because they’re just so dang long. It would seem to be an essential skill that there should be people in government who can explain. I don’t think every office needs a chief explainer necessarily, but it would help to have someone on staff who was dedicated to disseminating information in a very clear and understandable way.
Is there anything coming? Have you seen anything like that? Has anybody in government contacted you and said Common Craft is great, we’re doing this?
Is that a direction that you think government offices will go in?
Lee: I do. We have been contacted about that kind of thing. Government is a big organization that moves slowly. Just in the last couple of years we’ve seen the government make lots of moves in new media that weren’t there in the past. I think they’re learning. I see this from a couple of different perspectives. I would love to see government put a priority on creating these explanations, however they do it, in some remarkable way that actually gets people to see.
Not the campaign talking points, not the rhetoric, but the rationale behind how everything works. Like Medicare. If you went out to learn about Medicare, you would likely get caught up in the noise of like the doughnut hole or fraud or all these things. I think what’s missing is giving people a way to understand something like Medicare in the context of what is the rationale behind Medicare? Why does the fact that Medicare exists make sense, or why did it make sense to the people that initially designed it?
By focusing not on the level of noise and details that you see on TV and focusing on these fundamental basic things, we empower voters to be informed and become higher information voters. We can’t necessarily tell them believe this fact or not this fact kind of thing, we can equip them with a foundational level of understanding that let’s them be informed and judge for themselves what is right and what is wrong and what’s a fact and what’s not.
That’s where I see it happening with government. Playing a role of not contributing more noise, but focusing on these fundamental kind of ideas that empower people to be high-information voters.
Patrick: I think like you said the talking points, I think that’s where a lot of communication about bills and acts comes down to. Talking points and marketing of those bills and acts. And that’s unfortunate. SOFA and PIPA is a really good example for me because it was talked about online a lot, but the fact was that probably 50 percent of every tweet I saw about it said something wrong. Either in this camp or this camp, someone’s wrong here.
I co-host a show dedicated to copyright and plagiarism. Not that I was super expert on it, but I knew enough and I had done my own research enough to the point to know that this person said this and it’s just totally wrong. But this just got re-tweeted seven million times. I guess that’s great, but it’s tough, and I would like to see that happen. Maybe we need another Czar, the explanations Czar.
Lee: Yeah, that’d be great. Bill Clinton is known as the explainer-in-
chief, maybe they can take some his advice on it.
Patrick: This is the SitePoint Podcast, and a large section of our audience here on this podcast is programmers, developers, designers. Obviously those people have to explain things to clients, and sometimes they know what they are doing but they have a hard time explaining their work without coming across as confusing or worse, rude. A programmer has a client meeting tomorrow to explain the direction of the next version of a website. Now to put you on the spot, they have an evening to prepare. When they ask you for advise, what would you tell them?
Lee: That’s a good question. Part of it is understanding this idea of the curse of knowledge, that everybody has it. Because of what you know, you find it hard to know what it feels like to hear the words that come out of your mouth basically. It’s a normal part of communicating for that to happen. You have to adjust for that. What the curse of knowledge causes is for a communicator to make poor assumptions about what the audience already knows.
Basically that means that you assume too much. You assume that they see the connections that you see. You assume that they see the basic ideas that you see. If you really are focused on explanation, you see the potential to account for the bad assumptions. One of the ways you do that is by putting an emphasis on context in the beginning of what you’re going to talk about. If you’re going to talk about some detailed programming let’s say, then the context means what is the world that those things live in?
Around that idea there is a bigger world. Ruby is a programming language and a programming language is something that allows software to be built, and we need software to do these things. These are sort of concentric worlds around the idea. What context does is give the audience a chance to evaluate what is he talking about. Why does this matter to me? Where is this headed? In my mind, doing that does something that I call in the book lowering the cost of understanding.
That’s the big idea, that when a programmer say is about to walk into a client meeting those clients are going to be evaluating what that person says and thinking am I capable of understanding this person? If the cost of understanding looks too high, especially from the beginning, they’ll tune out and the explanation will fail. That’s what happens if you don’t build context. But if you build context, make some statements in the beginning that frame the idea, come to agreement.
We can all agree this is the problem or we can all agree that this is the state of affairs. It takes that cost of understanding and spreads it across multiple ideas to make it like stepping stones to getting to that big idea. Context is the first step, then consider telling a story which doesn’t have to be this big, developed thing, but talk about someone who is impacted or affected someway by this idea and how it made them feel. That gives the audience the ability to say I want to feel that way, or I want my customers or employees to feel that way.
That again is one of those stepping stones that makes people feel like they grasp it, they understand, that they feel confident about the idea. Then there’s other parts of that, using analogies and connections, that sort of thing. It happens up front, it’s about that initial direction.
One last thing I would say is that explanations are like movie scripts or songs. They start off written. If you write it out, and write about the major talking points, you can see how it flows.
For most of us explanations happen off the top of our heads, we don’t ever have a plan. But if we can define something and say you know what? People are not understanding compiling, I don’t know programming that well, but how compiling works, then I’m going to sit down and write out how to explain that. That way I can walk into a meeting with talking points that make that a priority.
Patrick: Excellent. Really that inability to explain is how a lot of client relationships break down. That is if you can’t adequately explain yourself, why you have made the decisions that you’ve made and why they work without coming across as condescending, I think this book will be very helpful for that. It’s the Art of Explanation, available wherever books are sold, and for more info check out artofexplanation.com.
That brings us to the end of this show. Lee, thanks for coming on.
Lee: Great to be here Patrick, thank you.
Patrick: Where can people find you online?
Patrick: And I am Patrick O’Keefe of the iFroggy Network. I blog at ManagingCommunities.com, on Twitter @iFroggy. You can follow SitePoint
@sitepointdotcom, that’s sitepointdotcom. Visit us at sitepoint.com/podcast, leave comments on this show and subscribe to receive every show automatically. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions for us, we’d love to read them out on the show and give you our advice. The SitePoint Podcast is produced by Karn Broad. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
Theme music by Mike Mella.
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