An algorithm for creating good explanations

by Duncan Sabien Jul 28 2016 updated Jul 28 2016

Excellent explanations can break the rules, but it helps to know those rules in the first place. Following these steps will help you create explanations that are solid and that avoid common mistakes.

Estimated read time: 10 minutes

Let's assume you have a concept in mind, and you'd like to explain it (or perhaps you've already got a write-up, and you'd like to improve it). Below is an algorithm for turning your own general understanding into a clear, concise, and thorough explanation. If you can answer all of the questions below in order, then you're almost certainly ready to make sense for your audience.

Interlude: Averages and Algorithms

In 1950, researchers in the Air Force measured 4063 pilots on 140 different physical dimensions.%%note:The End of Average by L. Todd Rose © 2016%% The goal was to update the average pilot size, which was used to build cockpits and hadn't been remeasured since 1926.

However, when Lieutenant Gilbert S. Daniels compared the new average with the individual records, he discovered something startling: not a single one of the four-thousand-plus pilots was within 15% of the average on the ten most relevant dimensions (such as height and chest circumference). In fact, for any given three dimensions, fewer than 4% of the pilots would qualify as average. There simply was no such thing as an "average" pilot, and therefore cockpits designed for the average fit nobody.

Daniels' discovery led to the creation of adjustable seats and straps like those we find in cars and helmets today. Similarly, you should consider the art of explaining things to be flexible and adaptable—there is no "one size fits all" strategy that will work for every concept and every audience. The steps below are a solid jumping-off point, and cover a lot of the overlap between all good explanations. But if you find yourself wanting to deviate, thinking that a given step feels wrong or doesn't make sense, you're almost certainly right. The following is a rough outline, not an exact map.