Always New Mistakes

January 24, 2008

The Explanation Problem and why we suck at it

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 12:57 pm

I’ve come to believe there is a huge knowledge gap between early adopters and “the rest”. Most of the early adopters are very tech savvy and have a special gift for understanding how things work. I confess I’m an early adopter myself and even though I love to be one, sometimes I feel I’m very disconnected with the rest of the world. This is specially true if you are an entrepreneur and you need to pitch your idea to investors, friends, potential users, etc. And of course, most tech entrepreneurs are early adopters, so it’s common.

question-mark.jpgThe problem arises when you are talking about something normal to you, be it Twitter, Facebook or Seesmic and part, if not all, of your audience isn’t an early adopter. You’ll probably get questions like “Sees.. what?. Suddenly everybody is looking at you demanding an explanation because, of course, 99% of them had the same question. Now, for someone that lives and breaths technology, it’s very hard to explain a new concept or service. We tend to use other tech terms to aid us in our quest to explain something which in the end just confuses your audience even more.

Of course, the reason behind this is that early adopters don’t think in the same way the rest of the world does. They’ve been absorbing such a huge technological background that they think everybody is like them and that everybody is capable of going from A to C without talking about B (because of course, B is rather obvious… or is it?). This problem isn’t unique to early adopters but to many other professionals like doctors or architects.

Now, I was reading Lee LeFever’s latest blog post where he gives the key for the explanation problem. I have to confess it was an “AHA” moment. Lee just nails it! He explains:

Often, when someone asks “what is…”, they really mean “Why does it matter to me?” By considering what matters to someone, the answer becomes different and more likely to give them information they can act on.

Why does it matter to me? What is that going to give me? How can I use that to make my life easier? These an similar questions are the cornerstone of this vexing problem. If you, like me, are used to deal with your family’s computer problems you might be aware of how hard it’s to explain our world to non tech geeks. Personally I tend to over explain the question instead of answering “yes” or “no” which is what really matters to my speaker. From now on I’ll try to answer asking me first the “Why does it matter to me?” question.

So, why this post matters to you? Because it will enable you to explain your knowledge to a wider audience.

Image credit: scanned.wordpress.com

17 Comments »

  1. Thanks Alex! One of the books that helped me with this issue is Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath – they talk about the “Curse of Knowledge” that matches what you describe here – highly recommended!

    Comment by Lee LeFever — January 24, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

  2. Thanks Lee! It’s not the first time I’ve heard about that book but I’m going to buy it now definitely! Thanks for the tip!

    Comment by Alex Barrera — January 24, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

  3. Very interesting point of view. It reminded me of a course I took in the MBA where they gave the same guideline to prepare any presentation to an audience. Why is what you are trying to explain important to them?

    I have also found myself getting into unnecessary details loosing the point of transmitting the importance and use of the gadget/technology or program.

    Lee, I will look for the book.

    Comment by Alejandro Santana — January 24, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

  4. Even in my country, there are people who doesn’t know what Google is.
    .
    btw, for that “Why does it matter to me?” (WDIMTM) phrase, we have one popular “Apa Manfaatnya BAgi Ku?” (AMBAK)phrase, with similiar meaning….
    .
    there is always GAP between G And P…🙂

    Comment by Columnesia — January 25, 2008 @ 10:26 am

  5. Explaining things to others is a good test of multiple factors.

    1. How well do you truly understand the thing you are trying to explain? If you can only describe C by using B, then perhaps you don’t understand C as well as you thought. Just because someone can use a tool fairly well doesn’t mean they understand it. My father proved completely unable to explain how to drive a manual transmission, but a girlfriend did it in a couple of minutes.

    2. How well can you understand others? If you keep using B to explain C and your audience doesn’t understand B, then you are failing. Some people do this because they don’t consider their audience important. They are just trying to seem important to anyone who will listen (often subconsciously), and fail to put the effort into understanding where the audience is. Others just prove too inflexible to adapt to other people’s ways of thinking. When giving directions to your house, some people might strictly follow compass points (turn north onto the turnpike…), others desire relative positions (turn right onto the turnpike…), still others need visual cues (two blocks after passing the Circle K, turn onto the turnpike heading away from the Shell station…).

    The more we study connections between information, the easier the process becomes. The more highly we consider others, the better we get at being flexible and improving our explanations.

    (Oh, one question: is Facebook important technology which I should be adopting?)

    Comment by びっくり — January 25, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

  6. Alex,

    One of the problems within the tech community is that most companies are terrible at explaining what their products/services do and why you should use/need them.

    When I was a technology reporter, it was a fairly common occurrence for a CEO to ramble on about their company’s service or product. Then, I would say something like “That’s great, but can you tell me in English what your company actually does?”. The CEO would inevitably be flustered, and need some time do what I asked.

    Sad and funny at the same time.

    Comment by Mark Evans — January 25, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  7. @Alejandro
    Nice seeing you here🙂 You know, sometimes we even fail to explain other non tech people why we act as we do, and why it’s hard for us to explain things.

    So even the most trivial explanation usually goes unanswered by us.

    Comment by Alex Barrera — January 25, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

  8. @columnesia, I love the WDIMTM acronnym haha it’s cool. It could be a little bit more friendly though. The next time I’ll do a presentation I think I’ll use it hehe

    Btw, nice project with columnesia! Keep the “GAP” closing.

    Love the phrase about GAP😛

    Comment by Alex Barrera — January 25, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

  9. @びっくり (how do you pronounce your name? Just curious🙂 )

    I agree with you in nº1. It’s absolutly necessary that you know your stuff. As you say, the more you know it, the better you’ll explain it. But (there is always a “but” hehe), there is a point in which having so much knowledge can stand in the way of a simple and clear explanation. That was what Lee pointed out as being the “knowledge curse”.

    About your second point, I also agree with you. But I don’t think it’s always because of disdain but because understanding what the person is asking you is an Art. Few people (very very few) are able to do this in a consistent way. Due to your experience you might know what a person is asking you, but even in those cases it isn’t easy.

    Sometime ago a friend of mine went to one of John Searle conferences. She told me she was amazed at Searle’s answers. He was able to even correct the person that had asked him something by saying: “No, you didn’t want to ask me this, what you really are asking is …”

    Not too many people can do that. So back to you point, I think that, apart from personal issues, people don’t do it, because it’s very hard. It’s probably something you learn how to do with time.

    The same applies to good design. Doing a simple and good design is one of the hardest things someone can do. It requires the ability of thinking how people are going to interact with your design.

    What do you think?

    Comment by Alex Barrera — January 25, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  10. Oh btw, yes, Facebook is a cool tool if you know how to use it.

    Comment by Alex Barrera — January 25, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  11. Hi Mark,

    What you say is so true! I’ve seen it many times. I’ve also suffered it! I have such a hard time looking for non specialized words to describe or pitch an idea that I forget the main point, why do my listener should care about it.

    So, I’m going to take everybody’s advice and I’ll focus on the listener not on the technical side of the idea/product/company.

    Btw, as you point out, the lack of a “stress point” in many products and business plans is quite worrisome.😦

    Comment by Alex Barrera — January 25, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

  12. Hmm… I like your post on this topic. Well done on your achievement. In my own opinion, some part of what you have discussed about socializing could be due to the different levels of ones exposure and knowledge.

    Comment by alexander — January 26, 2008 @ 1:59 am

  13. My name, びっくり, can be romanized to Bikkuri. Pronounce the vowels as if they were in a Romance language, not as if they were in English. The double K means that the consonant should be held for twice as much time.

    I think the “Knowledge Curse” probably comes up when you know a lot, but your knowledge is too narrow. If one has a wide breadth of experience and ponders how these experiences are interconnected, it becomes easier to find alternate explanations.

    You are absolutely correct that this is a developed skill. We should explain ourselves often, so that this ability is finely tuned.

    One thing I have tried to do when explaining difficult concepts is to put it in terms of common experience. For example, explaining multivariable model-based control, by starting from a thermostat in a room or an accelerator and brake in a car. These are manipulated variables which virtually every adult has used to control temperature and speed.

    I thought your example of Searle’s question correction was funny. The words used in the example would actually put off a lot of people: “What a jerk! He thinks I don’t even know what I’m asking.” Doing that without offending is indeed a difficult art.

    Comment by びっくり — January 26, 2008 @ 4:53 am

  14. Nice name😀

    You are right, as we have a wider knowledge in different areas we can establish more connections to common grounds.

    I think your idea about common experience is a very good one. Those terms are what people really understand and we should use them more.

    So now my question is, if your knowledge is spread over different fields, then the difficulty is in how to establish bridges or metaphors with common ground domains. If you don’t think about it as we are doing now, it might prove very hard to do for many people. I suppose it’s like finding the answer to a riddle. It’s hard to find it, but once you see the answer we always think wow, that was easy.

    About Searle yes indeed, it might sound very haughty, but I suppose that when you are the one that asks, watching a guy that is able to read your mind and tell you what you really wanted to ask must be pretty astonishing hehe I know that I would be impressed. I suppose the explanation problem is bidirectional, you can see it also in people’s questions.

    But yes, some people might get offended by it.

    As a side not, I just saw this video that does just what we are talking about:

    Comment by Alex Barrera — January 26, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

  15. @alexander thanks!🙂 I’m so glad so many peopled liked it and specially stopped by to drop a comment! I love bidirectionality😀

    About exposing to different experiences, I agree with you, I was just talking about it with Bikkuri in the latest comment.

    What do you think of it?

    Comment by Alex Barrera — January 26, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  16. I think this is not just limited to professionaly per se. As a politics student, I know a fair bit more about abstract concepts than say my friends – naturally when we discuss subjects I weave in what I learnt at Uni but then for the purpose of the discussion they only need to understand the jist of a complex concept and then even only parts of it. So, I make a point of finding examples that are close to home to them. As said before, it also helps to see how much I’ve understood something myself.

    If I can explain it in mundane words by means of trivial examples, I know I’ve got it.

    Comment by amyrovig — February 12, 2008 @ 9:48 am

  17. […] que le interesa al receptor del mensaje? Alex Barrera lo recoge de manera excelente en su entrada  The Explanation Problem and why we suck at it. Además lo enfoca a los problemas que tienen los emprendedores o early adopters (normalmente […]

    Pingback by El blog del piloto » Blog Archive » La importancia de cómo comunicas — March 27, 2009 @ 10:06 am


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