Book Review: The Art of Explanation

We’ve all witnessed explanations that have gone horribly wrong. Maybe it was in class, when your teacher geeked out about his favorite pet subject, and it came across as meaningless jargon. Or perhaps you had an important presentation to your team at work, where you struggled to help them grasp the significance of a new product (while you watched their eyes glaze over). And with the rising complexity of the world we live in, we can all agree that we need a better way to learn and share ideas.

That’s where The Art of Explanation comes in. This book is essentially a survival guide on how to explain an idea to someone in a way that leaves them enlightened, and inspired. The author Lee LeFever is the founder of a company called Common Craft. You may have seen his work around, including the video they produced for Dropbox which received 25 million views.

In this review, I will give you a very brief summary of what the book talks about, and hopefully whet your appetite to dig deeper. 


What is an Explanation?

According to the book: “An explanation describes facts in a way that makes them understandable.” An explanation is not a description, definition, or instruction. It is a way to package ideas and make people care about what is being communicated. To use the Dropbox video as an example, instead of focusing on how Dropbox works, the video focused on why Dropbox will improve your life.

A core concept discussed in the book is called the “explanation scale.” The image above illustrates this concept. When you are trying to communicate to an audience, they will fall in a spectrum from less understanding, to more understanding, or A to Z. People with less understanding will want to know why they should learn something, while those with more understanding are more interested in how that something works. For example, to someone who has never used a computer before, you should probably start with why their life will positively change if they decide to use one. Once you have sold them on that, you can move on to how a computer works. Reversing this order and starting with the details first will leave them bored, and confused.

Though an explanation is not a formula, LeFever provides a list of ingredients that make a good explanation: Context, Story, Connections, Simplification, and Constraints.

1. Context

Most of us are familiar with the importance of context. When we explain something, it’s tempting to dive right in and talk about the trees. But without the forest, the trees are meaningless. A few years back, Common Craft was working on a video that introduced Google Docs to potential users. Instead of launching into all the features it had to offer, they focused on showing why the old model (Microsoft Word) was limited and caused problems. This created context with the users, and allowed them to understand why they should care.

2. Story

A story can give meaning to otherwise bland and uninteresting facts. It allows us to see things through the lens of a person’s experience. Consider these two examples from the book:

“A blog is a personal journal published on the World Wide Web consisting of discrete entries typically displayed in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appear first. “


“Meet Allison. She recently created a website where she posts her experiences in raising a puppy. Her website is an online journal, or blog, and every few days she posts a new entry that appear at the top of her page. This stream of entries lets her connect with dog lovers from around the world.”

Both examples communicate the same information, but the second one is far more engaging by the addition of a character. 

3. Connections

New concepts can be introduced more easily when we relate them to something else everyone is familiar with. One example the book uses is the company Netflix. Although it is now a household word, this company was revolutionary when it hit the streets. The best way to explain this new service was to think of it as an online DVD rental store. By relating it to an existing concept, the new idea becomes easier to comprehend.

4. Simplification

I often work with clients that have so much they want to communicate in a video, that it becomes overly complex and confusing. Often they know so much about a topic, that they are unable to break it down for others. The book explains “Although valuable, the knowledge we bring to the table inhibits our ability to predict what will appear simple for others, which then makes our explanations overly complex.”

LeFever offers some guidelines to follow:

Do not make assumptions about what people already know
Use the most basic language possible
Zoom out and try to see the subject from the broadest perspective possible
Forget the details and focus on the big ideas
Trade accuracy for understanding

5. Constraints

As a creative individual, I loved this chapter of the book. When I sit down to work on a project, I am sometimes overwhelmed with the options and possibilities in front of me. The best way to handle this is to put limitations or constraints on what the project is trying to accomplish. These constraints could be a deadline, project length, number of topics, or the format used (video, powerpoint, blog, etc). If you don’t limit, your audience will be as overwhelmed as you are. By constraining what we cover in our explanation, we allow ourselves to focus on what is important to our project, and leave out distractions.

This is just a very quick look at some of the topics covered in The Art of Explanation. It’s packed with practical examples, illustrations, and real world insight from an industry expert. Whether you’re blogging, creating videos, or presenting your next big idea to the board of directors, this book will have something for you. Check it out, and start sharing your ideas! (in a way people will understand)