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The Art of Explanation

Thursday, December 10, 2015

There's an art of explanation, and Lee LeFever has written a book on the subject with the same name. Lee creates explanation videos for companies, and has worked with Google, Dropbox, and LEGO. Learn the the elements to what makes content understandable, and the importance of tone and style in the process. Want to hear more about Lee and his videos? Visit: https://www.commoncraft.com.

Byron:               Welcome back to the WriterAccess podcast, everyone. Byron here with a bad voice but I’m here with Lee. Lee, welcome.

        Lee:                    Nice to be here, Byron.

Byron:               Indeed, the show must go on, so bear with me everyone while my voice scratches in your ear. Sorry about that. Lee, super excited to learn about your background a little bit for starters before we launch into the art of explanation in the Explainer Academy which everyone is excited to hear about, but what brought into the study of explanation?

Lee:                   Back in the early days of social media, I was a consultant. I realized that the thing that kept people from really getting to the next level with things like Wikis and blogs and social networking wasn’t the technology or the features or the cost; it was really just understanding, and we really set out to try to find ways to make technology understandable. That’s was kind of a different way of looking at communication and writing. We made videos to do that and that’s kind of what got us started.

Byron:               I might add, those videos were absolutely killer and viral. Why didn’t you choose to just make a living doing like short, tight, clean, beautiful videos that explained complex problems in the beautiful simple ways that you’ve learnt to do that?

Lee:                   Well, I can argue that we are. I think that we’re still making videos. Our library has about 78 videos and that we’re licensed to educators. So we’re still making the videos. It’s just not for the sort of marketing side of the market. It’s more education.

Byron:               Let’s get into the art. Why are we so hung up with beating our chest with our products and services and why isn’t that working?

Lee:                   That’s a good question. I think that in a lot of cases, we have this idea called the curse of knowledge which a lot of you listeners might be familiar with, where we live around these products and these features everyday and we talk about it everyday at work and it starts to become a natural way of communicating for us and it’s hard for us to then empathize within an audience whose never even heard those words before, and then we kind of throw out these features and these product names and then expect people to understand it when they’re missing valuable context. That’s sort of the curse of knowledge impacting your own sort of writing and promotional materials I would say.

Byron:               Spot on. Tell us about scriptwriting. Do you yourself write a lot of these scripts? Do you have a team of people that write these scripts? What’s your approach to scriptwriting?

Lee:                   Yeah. I am the lead scriptwriter and my wife Sachi, everything we do is a team between my wife Sachi and I. We really are common craft and everything we do is a team. She’s like our editor. She makes it clean and makes it work. I kind of do the ideas. We also have some technical editors that we bounce ideas off of them, makes sure that we’re getting things right. I believe that writing is really the heart of explanation, that’s truly where the explanation happens. All the visuals, all the videos are secondary to actually getting ideas on paper and that’s where we spend a lot of our time.

Byron:               Tell us how you keep your target audience in the back of your mind when you’re creating this content? Have you really learned to connect with your audience? Do you know who they are? Do you know what they want and what their needs are?

Lee:                   I think that early on when we were making videos that were more viral sort of for the internet in general which makes it a very broad audience. Now, we understand that how we make our living is based on licensing from teachers and trainers and people like that. So we’re always trying to now take the perspective of what’s going to help a teacher explain this to their students in the classroom. Truly our focus is trying to make it, for one, understandable for that audience but also evergreen so it can last for years, and really kind of focus on this sort of introduction as a part of education. Instead of getting into the details, we want to just build a foundation for the teacher to then use to jump off onto to more detailed parts of that subject.

Byron:               When you’re creating the contents for these scripts, are you thinking about the problems people might have as a priority or are you really studying more the technology itself to see how it works and what not? What are you focusing on with this center of communication?

Lee:                   Yeah. Here’s what I think about that. Most of our videos, most of the work we do are these little packages of information for about three minutes long. In that amount of time, there’s facts that we’re communicating in there but they’re not facts. We’re not doing any original research, like these are facts you can find on Wikipedia, you can find on the web. What we do and the value of what we do is repackaging those facts into a form that makes them more familiar and easier to understand for our audience, and that means building context, that means telling stories, that means a lot of like analogy. We used to spend a lot of time on writing script trying to find this theme or this analogy or the story we can tell that repackages facts and to this form that makes it more understandable.

        Byron:               Why three minutes? Why is three minutes important?

Lee:                   Yeah, it’s become kind of a rule of thumb for us, but coming from a sort of getting started on the internet and realizing that people and sort of the lean forward kind of version of viewing content...Statistically, the longer the video is, the more likely they’re going to tune out eventually. I think in the web world and in the classroom, we really try to keep it as short as possible. If you go much under two minutes or so, there’s just not enough there to relate information. If you go over four, then it starts to drag a little bit from our experience for our particular content.

Byron:               There’s often a lot more depth behind a product you’re showcasing or an experience you’re trying to convey. How are you handling that with additional content or additional videos or maybe supplemental material that people might need to read, look at to fully grasp the concept? How are you balancing what you show in three minutes versus what people might also need to take a look at?

Lee:                   Yeah. We kind of leave that up to the audience and to our members of common craft that use the videos. We don’t necessarily say, “Hey, here’s a PDF, with more deep information or every source that we got this information from.” Most of it is sort of very well-known information. It’s not something that we really do. I think there might be something we could do there but common practice is sort of unique. We are a two-person company. We’re dedicated to being very small and it just means that we have to use constraints. We have to work within a certain number of things that we actually do, and that we don’t have a team working on that on the side. It’s just us.

Byron:               Do you find yourself wanting to create more and more videos the more problems you face, like if you’re travelling in a hotel room and you have trouble finding a channel, do you just be like, “I need to do a video on this”?

Lee:                   I do think about that sometimes. It’s always a balance of is that something that our customers would like. I’m always writing like I use medium lately to write things, and I recently wrote something that was meant to explain why airports and air travel is so inefficient and I want people to be more mindful of how their actions impact others. It’s sort of an explanation of like this is why you shouldn’t look at your phone in the middle of a crowded hallway. Move over to the side. Be mindful of that because it impacts the whole system. I’m always kind of looking for ways to explain things that don’t necessarily involve videos or the normal common craft kinds of things. 

Byron:               What’s next for the way we communicate? Do you think these small sound-bytes of three minutes are really something; A) you can absorb, B) you retain and is this possibly the future of where we should be moving with all education?

Lee:                   I think it has its place. I don’t think that it’s a ‘cure all’. I don’t think that it’s a going to be the standard. I think it’s going to be a part of a greater experience. I think especially in training and teaching, it’s the teachers themselves that have the information and the talent to kind of…to do more than that. One of my friends who runs a site called News Bound, once wrote that, “Explainer content is sort of the rock and the rest of the information is the river that sort of flows by it” kind of a thing. We want to create those sort of rocks that are these timeless chunks of information that are the analogies that people need just to become…to get started, understanding something.

Byron:               Have you thought about the sort of Buoy Analogy as well when you’re trying to navigate into the harbor where you just need these markers that help you along? Is that how you view it as well?

        Lee:                    Yeah, I’ve never thought about it in this specific terms but I think that                 totally works.

        Byron:               Oh, there’s your next video.

        Lee:                    Yeah.

        Byron:               Next analogy.

        Lee:                    Yeah.

Byron:               Tell us about metaphors and analogies, a big part of learning arguably; and neuroscience is leading us to that conclusion, but how are you dreaming up metaphors and analogies and why is that critical to your work?

Lee:                   Yeah, I think that it’s probably one of the most powerful parts of explanation. Making something easy to understand is finding that analogy. One of the things that I think is interesting about that is that analogy is as powerful as they are, have a lot of detractors. There’s a lot of people maybe on the more academic or scientific side that don’t really like analogies and the reason is because they’re never perfect, they’re not accurate, by the false analogies are not perfect, accurate information. I think that’s part of seeing explanation in contexts is understanding that you can’t be 100% accurate and make something understandable to a general audience. At the same time, it’s sort of a tradeoff. We spend a lot of time, Sachi and I discussing it. We do it on dog walks, and in front of the things that we do are every part of our lives. It’s not like we turn it on and off too easily but we’re always testing and thinking about analogies that might work. Sometimes, they’re not X’s like Y’s so much as what is the story we can tell that will have an analogy in it or a theme that sort of relates to it that kind of connects this idea in people’s minds.

Byron:               You have a bit of a lifestyle business. Could Apple Computer pay you a gazillion dollars to leave it all and go back and create videos for the new products that Apple’s rolling out perpetually?         

Lee:                   I don’t know. We would have to talk about that. I mean, we’re lucky to have a bit of visibility and interest. The video that people know it’s from us, the Dropbox video which was on the Dropbox home page for a few years and got tons of, millions of views. That’s not our business right now but there are times when we will consider that sort of thing. Who knows about Apple? We tried to think who are the companies that we think that would be the best to work with, and Apple may be it, I don’t know.

Byron:               Sure. What’s the easiest way to screw up in an explanation video and surely in your illustrious past, you’ve screwed videos up and what did you take from that and how did you screw them up?

Lee:                   That’s a good question. I think obviously, if your goal is to make something understandable and you’re trying to think through that, accuracy is a big deal. You have to actually understand it yourself. I think that’s probably one of the biggest problems is when people go to explain something and they think they understand it but they don’t really understand it. It really shows when they go to try to teach someone else that subject. I think the biggest thing might be really knowing what’s going to work for the audience. Some people might think of explanation as something, “Oh, I’m going to make it simple. I just need to dumb this down.” I think that’s actually not the best perspective. It’s really about what is familiar, what’s going to sound familiar to your audience. When it doesn’t sound familiar to your audience whether it’s too complex or maybe…If it’s too simple, it sounds condescending. If it’s too complex, they don’t understand it. It’s like knowing your audience and hitting that mark.  

        Byron:               Very cool. Tell us about Explainer Academy and what your goals are                 over there.

Lee:                   Sure. Since we started making videos in 2007, people were really curious about how we do what we do, how do we think of these ideas, some of the things we’re talking about today. Also, writing scripts, making story boards, producing videos, and up until now we have had the book, The Art of Explanation which is really about our approach at common craft to the idea of explanation. The Explainer Academy is part of that with more sort of information about that, but also courses, I should say they are online self-taste courses that cover not only the explanation, sort of communication side but also how to make videos using do-it-yourself tools like PowerPoint and ScreenCasting, and really showing people that it’s easier than they think to take an idea and make a video that actually explains it.

        Byron:               Very cool. What is most surprising to you about how people learn?

Lee:                   Something that I’ve learned through making videos and there’s definitely science to back it up and I know all of your listeners probably know this too, but I think the easiest way to learn something is to write about it. That means maybe writing as much as you can or getting to a point where maybe you feel like, “Okay, maybe I don’t understand this” going back to a source, learning about it then writing about it more. That process of writing really changes how you think about something but also how you make something understandable. That’s a big lesson from the Academy, is if your goal is to be understandable, and your goal is to learn something then start writing about it. Pick up a pen, pick up a computer, pretend that you’re writing a letter to a friend then you start at saying, “I’m going to make this understandable for you. Think about it this way.” To me that’s a tool that anybody can learn anywhere, is use writing as a way to learn.

Byron:               How important is tone and style and actual voice to your videos and to explanation in general?

Lee:                   That’s a good question. That’s probably obvious but I’ve never had voice training or anything. We kind of started doing this on a whim. I’ve learned as I’ve gone. I have a little bit of a Southern accent. I don’t know if you can tell. I’m from North Carolina originally. People have told me that that helps a little bit. I try to be friendly and smile, like actually when we’re recording a voice over, I constantly try to smile like physically on my face and that changes the tone I think of the voiceovers and that helps. I think people when they don’t understand something, they can feel anxious about it, and when someone is able to communicate in a way that helps them feel comfort, and that okay this is for me, I can understand this, and lower that level of anxiety then it primes them for learning and makes them feel like, “I can do this.” Whereas, if it’s too formal, too hard, too much like a radio voice, too much like marketing, I think it’s a big deal, then they’re likely turn off and assume it’s not going to be for them.

       Byron:               As they say, “No one wants to be sold to these days particularly.”

       Lee:                    That’s right.

Byron:               Tell us a little bit about the concerns or the pain points you see with other things that are produced that aren’t as good as yours. Do you cringe when you see a video that is done poorly, and what elements do you immediately pick up on that say screwed up?

Lee:                   Explanation is, I think, a unique beast in some ways because you can’t judge an explanation without knowing the intent of the person that’s communicating it. So, if they say, “This is an Explainer video…“ That’s one thing. Okay, their goal is to explain. We can talk about that. But what you might not know is, well, they might know their audience better than I do. So if I don’t know their audience, and I don’t know the language that their audience speaks, it’s hard for me to look at the language that they use for instance and say, “Oh, that doesn’t work,” because it didn’t work for me, it doesn’t matter. It matters if it works for the audience or not. It’s a little bit hard sometimes to judge other’s explanations unless you know who the audience is and that’s the case for things like public service announcements which are for everyone. It’s hard to put your finger on it but sometimes I think that people just think too much. They overthink the graphics, they overthink the experience, and it becomes crowded and noisy. I think that ultimately, the visuals and the experience should complement the words and not the other way around.

Byron:               Interesting. How important is the element of surprise or reward or mystery or at least some of the elements of story-telling, as you know it oh, too well, to an explanatory video?

Lee:                   I agree that’s it’s a powerful thing in story-telling. In three minutes, there’s not necessarily the amount of time that it would take to kind of…for it to have the story unravel in sort of an epic unravel. I don’t think anybody expects that, but I think it’s great if you can make it work but it’s not something that we make a huge priority to have that element of surprise and suspense in a way that a lot of stories do.  

Byron:               Does the evil villain, perhaps the protagonist overcomes, become the technology itself? Are you overcoming something? Are you conquering something?

Lee:                   Sometimes. I think in a lot of our videos its really just battle between old and new where there’s an old way of doing things, so there’s this old way of thinking and it leads you down this path but now there’s a new way of thinking. This is how that’s different and this is why it makes sense, that this new way is better. So I think it’s less about evil and good and more about old and new and better and worse and that sort of thing.

Byron:               Do you literally approach a new project with those very questions? “How is it different?” “Why is it better?” “What do we focus on?” I mean, are questions an important part of your investigation before you even begin writing?

Lee:                   Yeah. I think they are. Again, we try to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who’s trying to teach someone else technology. A video that we’ve worked on recently is about Artificial Intelligence, for instance. Really, one of the more difficult ones we’ve had, so we try to think about, if I was a teacher teaching Artificial Intelligence, what would be the things that I would want for my students to grasp or early on, as an introduction so that they have that foundation for then building more complex ideas on top.

Byron:               Makes a lot of sense. I have two final questions for you, who do you want to get a hold of you and how can they get a hold of you?

Lee:                   Hold on. Right now, wow, I would love it if president Obama or somebody calls me to have a picture.

        Byron:              I bet you’ve got some explanation videos in mind for Obama. 

Lee:                   No. I think that right now our focus is to the Explainer Academy. We have a newsletter and that will be our main way that we kind of let people know what’s happening. You can sign up for the newsletter at explaineracademy.com.

        Byron:               Very cool.

        Lee:                    Also you can watch all of our videos at commoncrafts.com.

Byron:               Very cool. Well, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you today. I must say I’ve really enjoyed this thoroughly.

        Lee:                    Yeah, I’ve enjoyed it too, Byron. Thanks for having me.

Byron:               Right on. Until next week, everybody. I hope you guys are a little smarter, better, faster and wiser. Thanks to this great Explanation podcast like this. Thanks again for tuning in everyone.