Welcome to Masters of Communication: our series of interviews with communication experts. In this episode, I got to chat with Lee LeFever, the founder of Common Craft, author of the book The Art of Explanation, and all-around expert explainer. Lee can explain anything, from copyright to zombies, and even more exciting: he can teach the rest of us how to do it.

Click play below to learn why explanations fail and get some tips on making your ideas, products, and services easier to understand. (If you’re in more of a reading mood today, you can also scroll down to find the full transcript of the interview.)

Masters of Communication: Lee LeFever

Interview Transcript

Melanie: So today, I have the extreme pleasure of speaking with Lee LeFever, the founder of Common Craft, which if you’re not familiar is those great videos with the cut-outs that help you “get” things like RSS and APIs without your brain wanting to fall out. Lee is an expert explainer, and his book, The Art of Explanation, teaches the rest of us how to explain our ideas, products, and services in a way that makes them easier to understand. So Lee, tell me: how did you become passionate about communication?

Lee: You know, I think that even going back to high school and the early part of college I was really interested in things like email when I first learned about them, and it was sort of an innate part of my life-to feel like I could communicate in a way that people could understand.

But it really got started when I became an online community manager in about 1999 or so. I started a program at the company that I was working for, and that’s when I really saw the potential for the web to become a communication medium. That’s when I really started to get passionate about communication: discovering online communities.

Melanie: Great, and from there, can you tell me a little bit about how that turned into Common Craft, and how that kind of turned into this “art” of explanation?

Lee: Sure, sure. So I managed the online community program until about 2003 and started Common Craft to be a consulting company to work with organizations that were interested in online communities. And what I discovered at the time was that the things that were keeping my clients from adopting these new tools, like RSS, and wikis, and blogs, weren’t the normal things like design, or engineering, or price, or access. In a lot of cases, it was just simply explanation-that no one could take an idea like RSS or wikis and put it in a form that people could actually understand.

And I thought that there was an opportunity there to actually create a niche around the idea of explanation and explain these things in a way that actually helped people become more comfortable with technology, essentially. And that’s what inspired us to start making videos in 2007-we thought that video was the perfect format for doing just that.

Melanie: Great. So when we’re talking about these kind of explanations-whether it’s something like RSS or maybe an idea for a company, or just an idea you’re trying to communicate to someone else-why do explanations tend to fail?

Lee: You know, I think that most of the time that explanations fail is when they happen on an ad hoc basis. I think that people don’t often take a step back and think about, “Oh, this is going to be a time I explain something, how do I do that?” I think that’s probably one of the biggest problems-explanations just happen. People don’t actually think about it.

But there’s lots of other problems too. I think that people who know a lot about a subject have a hard time understanding what it’s like not to know, and they assume that people know as much as they do or that they don’t need to build context. That’s called the Curse of Knowledge-it was in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, that’s where I learned about that idea, the Curse of Knowledge-but I think it’s one of the most powerful ways of looking at explanations. It’s that we all have to sort of overcome the Curse.

And that means realizing that we know a lot, and that we have to think differently about how we communicate because it’s hard for us to imagine what people know and don’t know.

Melanie: And as a marketing-type person, selfishly-can you give an example of why you think marketing explanations fail? Whether it’s a really bad website, or a bad email that people are sending out?

Lee: Yeah, you know, it’s hard. I think that a lot of marketers are natural explainers. I think there’s a really tight connection between marketing and explanation. It’s all really communication-based. I think sometimes marketing and sales get so oriented around brand messaging, and style guides, and things like that that can be really powerful, but when it comes to making an idea easy to understand the buzzwords and the carefully crafted brand message or brand identity doesn’t work as well.

I think that one of the ways to think about that is if you’re in a situation where you’re working with someone who insists on using specific words or specific examples that have been approved by the marketing department-that’s a common thing-I think that’s a good time to have a conversation about what the goal of the communication is. If the goal is brand-if it’s brand communication, if it’s marketing, if it’s sales-there’s a place for that. But if the goal is understanding, that’s a different goal. That requires a different perspective, and maybe it’s time to let go of some of the things and go a bit higher level and try to talk to people in a way that sounds natural to them.

Melanie: Kind of related to that-what do you do if maybe someone from legal says that “we have to put this in here,” and they’re trying to add a dense paragraph of copy? Or just people wanting-I’ve always had the experience of “we want more,” the client always wants you to put more things in. Or working on the client side, you have a bunch of people like, “You’re not talking about this feature, and we worked really hard on that for several months!”

Lee: Yeah, it’s a tough position. There’s so many examples that end up being…the legal example, I mean, it’s hard for me to say “just ignore the lawyers.” They have a job to do, and it’s an important part of the organization’s communication to get that right.

But again, for me, I think it goes back to goals and to ask, “What are we trying to do? Is it understanding, or is it something else?” I think oftentimes, in examples where there’s more details and more details, you have to really consider how much people can really take in in one experience. And the example of “we really worked hard on that feature,” I don’t think customers really know that, or care about that that much.

I’m a big fan of the idea that people won’t buy what they don’t understand. And that’s the first step. If you can communicate to them in a way that makes them care about something, they’re more likely to even notice the details or want to know the details. I think establishing that initial caring about it-“Oh, I see how this fits in my life now”-then the features that they worked so hard on will actually make a difference. But if that’s the first thing that the person hears about then they might have a hard time caring.

Melanie: That’s a good point. So what makes someone a good explainer?

Lee: An example that I use sometimes is giving driving directions. I think that people who give good driving directions are good explainers. And I think that’s because great driving directions don’t necessarily come from having driven a route a hundred times. Great driving directions come from a person who knows the route and can imagine what it’s like to do it the first time.

That’s empathizing. That’s empathizing with someone and imagining what it feels like to be that person sitting in the driver’s seat in a foreign land. And I think that’s really key to explanation because we have to be able to forget what we know about something and really think hard about our audience and think, “What’s it like to sit in that seat and hear my words?” And understand what words are going to work and what examples are going to work. That empathetic ability and attention to the audience and thinking through the ideas and what’s going to work for them is a really important part of that.

Melanie: So what are some tips people can do to work toward being a better explainer?

Lee: I think, first of all, realizing that explanation is a skill like anything else, and it can be improved. And just a little bit of improvement goes a long way.

So first is sort of this realization. Second is what I mentioned a minute ago-this idea of thinking about the audience and understanding who they are and what knowledge they bring to the situation and what they need.

Another quick point that is often left out of a lot of explanations is building context in the beginning of starting an explanation. If you know that you’re going into a situation to explain an idea, it’s natural for people who know a lot to say, “Oh, they understand the big picture. We can assume that everyone understands the big picture. I’m just going to focus on the things I care about.” Which are the details, often.

A lot of times…that doesn’t actually work very well. Again, it’s really hard for us to make accurate assumptions about the audience. I’ve always encouraged communicators to think about building context. Talk about the world around the ideas before you talk about the ideas. And that sort of helps to make sure that the people in the audience come along with you and see the details in the context of the bigger picture.

At Common Craft, we always say, “Focus on the forest first, then talk about the trees.”

Melanie: So when it comes to building empathy and really getting to know your audience-how do you do that? What are good steps to start to get to know these people and not assume a lot about them?

Lee: Yeah, it’s really hard. It’s a really challenging thing.

I think if you’re a speaker at a conference, for instance, you can talk to the organizers to understand who’s there. If you’re in a business situation at work maybe, you’re likely to know a little bit more and share that.

At Common Craft, we make videos that are used by educators and librarians and people all over the place, so we really strive to make videos that work for as large of an audience as possible. And that means really tamping down a lot of those assumptions and talking about those things in the clearest way that we can.

Every situation is different. It’s one of the things that’s hard about explanation is that every situation is different, and there aren’t really hard and fast rules that work in every situation.

Melanie: Got it. So as an expert explainer, is there a topic that you just kinda wish you could get your hands on and explain?

Lee: There’s a lot. You know, there’s really big picture things, like democracy. Or something like that. I think people just really take these words for granted. Human rights. We hear it all the time, but what does it really, really mean?

But then there’s things we’ve actually worked on some that are just really difficult things to unpack. Like Bitcoin, for instance. Or there’s a lot of health care stuff-I think there’s opportunities in health care to explain things like diabetes in a way that millions of people could see from a different perspective and understand why they have to take the medicine they do.

Melanie: Do you have a favorite explanation?

Lee: Of my own, or out in the world?

Melanie: Either one, actually.

Lee: That’s a good question. Some of our early work I think I’m really proud of. Our second video is “Wikis in Plain English,” and whenever I watch that video I’m always…part of me cringes because it’s so low fidelity and not the technical quality that we have right now, but some of the things we were doing back then I kind of want to redo in the current age of Common Craft videos. So that’s one of my favorites, I think. And the one on the stock market is one of my favorites too.

But overall, one of the early explanations that I noticed was done by This American Life, the radio show and podcast. It’s called “The Giant Pool of Money,” back in 2008, and it really explained the mortgage crisis back then in a very clear way. And that was right when we were starting to make videos and it really helped me think about what’s possible with explanation.

Melanie: Well, this was great. Thank you for talking with me and for explaining explaining, which is kind of meta.

Lee: It is meta. Yeah, thanks Melanie, it was great.

Photo: Rasmus Rasmussen via The Art of Explanation