Effective Explanations

Effective Explanations

June 18, 2013  |  Architecture  |  Share

A guest post from Lee Lefever:

You probably know the famous scene in the movie Glengary Glen Ross where Alec Baldwin’s character tells his team to “Always be closing.” I wish it were that simple. These days closing the deal, or even getting close, comes with more prerequisites — the biggest of which is understanding. People will not buy what they do not understand. Quality explanations are the key to getting prospects to become customers. I suggest a new motto for today: “Always be explaining.”

We rely on explanations so often that we rarely consider how to make them better. Our explanations just… happen. Unfortunately, these organic explanations can fail, especially when we’re explaining a complex idea. Often the problem is what Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, call “The Curse of Knowledge.” We ourselves know so much about our product or service that we can’t imagine what it’s like not to know. The curse causes us to make inaccurate assumptions about our audience’s level of understanding. The terminology and references that sound right to us come across as confusing jargon to others, and our explanations fail.

Understanding the basics of explanation can serve as a remedy for The Curse of Knowledge and help us think differently about how we explain ideas. This is especially true in the sales process. Whether it’s on the convention floor, in the executive suite, or during a product presentation, honing your explanation skills convinces your audience that you understand their needs.

As a professional explainer — I’ve worked with LEGO, Ford, Intel, and Dropbox to make ideas, products, and services easier to understand — I’ve spent the last decade digging into why business explanations so often stymie customers and send prospects running. What I’ve found is that most people have never considered what makes an idea easier to understand or how to approach the process of explaining ideas.

To help, I’ve provided seven tips to create effective explanations that will work for prospective customers:

1. Make Your Audience Feel Smart, Instead of Making Yourself Look Smart
We want others to think we’re smart because in most cases that’s rewarded. But when it comes to making an idea easy to understand, simple trumps clever. Fancy vocabulary and extensive background information might impress customers — but, more likely, will just confuse them. Stop trying to look smart and start making your audience feel smart by building their knowledge and confidence. Dazzle them with clarity; it’s another kind of brilliance.

2. Explain the Forest, Not Just the Trees
Focus only on features and you’ll miss an opportunity to invite your audience to see the big picture. Prioritizing the details of this year’s coolest product features isn’t an explanation. Customers won’t care about the bells and whistles if they don’t understand why your product exists and why it matters to them. By zooming out and focusing on context at the beginning of an explanation, you can build a world around your product that enables it to make more sense.

3. Add Details Sparingly
Has this happened to you? You’re meeting with prospects about a new product and it’s obvious that they just aren’t getting it. They stare blankly and stop asking questions. No problem, you think, you can still bring them around with a few more points. It’s a tempting move. After all, sometimes one small detail turns that lightbulb on, right? It may seem counterintuitive, but more information won’t help someone who’s already confused. Imagine being lost and having someone give you directions that include every possible route and landmark to your destination when all you want to know is north or south, left or right. The antidote to confusion is often less information. Don’t add detail; come back to one or two big ideas you know they’ll understand. Once their heads are nodding again you can proceed, but with caution.

4. Write Less Copy, Use More Visuals
Prospect not getting it? Write more marketing copy, right? No. Jon English said it best: “words are not enough.” We’re communicating in the YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram era to audiences who are more visually literate than ever. Though often more difficult and expensive to produce, infographics, videos and diagrams can do the heavy lifting of making explanations work. For example, the popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter encourages every new project to use a video to explain their idea. The company has established that projects with video have a better rate of success (30% vs. 50%). Videos offer potential funders a simple and compelling way to understand a new idea and why it matters.

5. Remember Your Audience is Human
If you think stories are for campfires, not your state-of-the-art product, then you’re forgetting that your audience is human. Stories provide a way to see how a product works in the real world, with real people. And you don’t have to be a storyteller to make stories work. In fact, the most effective stories simply illustrate a person in pain who found a solution and now feels relieved. These simple stories offer a way for the audience to empathize and imagine themselves solving similar problems.

6. Focus on Why
The best explanations answer one question: why? Why does this idea, product or service make sense? Why should I care about it? Why does this matter to me? By answering the “why” early in a meeting or presentation, you create a foundation for understanding on which to build more complex ideas. Think of an explanation like a recipe. Recipes are usually focused on “how” to create a dish. The list of ingredients and instructions work, but you may not know why. By understanding why yeast and baking powder are used, for instance, you can start to see the process from a new perspective and make the next dish your own.

7. Your Job is to Inform Smart People
No one likes to be talked down to, and if you approach explanation with the wrong attitude, it can be destructive. Science writer Steven Pinker once shared advice he got from an editor concerning condescension. She told him to treat his audience as if they are as smart as him, just not as informed. Use this important point to set the tone of your explanation. Your job is to inform smart people, not help the slowest people catch up. Remembering this will help you achieve an informative, not condescending, tone.

Follow all of these steps and you too can enlighten clients and win prospects. The first real step in creating great explanations is realizing that improvement is possible. You can become a better explainer and use explanation skills to solve problems and motivate others to care about your message. By employing the tips above, you’ll be well on your way to making explanations that work.

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