Content in context
Explanations don't exist in a vacuum—they're interactive. Every article or lecture or tutorial is meant to be absorbed by someone, and the best ones keep the audience front and center.
A good explanation is clear, complete, and concise. It uses the simplest possible language and draws the straightest possible path to its conclusion. It includes enough detail to cause the concept to hold together and connect to other concepts, but leaves out extraneous or unnecessary information.
Phrases like "simplest possible" and "enough detail" are relative, though, and so the best explanations also embody a fourth quality—they're reflective, with both form and content tailored to meet the exact needs of their audiences. Just as there is no such thing as an "average person", there are no concepts with universal explanations that work equally well for everyone. What's concise for one person might be rambling for another, and bewildering for a third—just imagine trying to explain the process of natural selection to a kindergartener, a sixth grader, and a college freshman, using the same words and diagrams.
The key insight here is that the explainer's job isn't done once they've said all the things—it's done once the learner has actually understood them. It's not enough to ask yourself "What are all the important pieces of this concept?" Instead, you should ask "What does someone who really gets this concept look like? What could they say or do that would prove that I've succeeded in transferring knowledge?" If your concept isn't meaningfully changing your audience—isn't granting them a new skill or a new and useful perspective—then there's not much point in explaining it in the first place.
Useful questions for reflective explanations:
- Who are you communicating with? How should your tone change, to match—should you be formal or informal, general or technical, elaborate or succinct? If you have to err in one direction or another, which is least likely to be problematic?
- Why is this information useful or valuable? Do you need to convince your audience of that value, as part of your explanation? How will awareness of this concept enrich their lives?
- What are the inferential gaps that you need to address? Are there conceptual leaps that are likely to generate confusion or opposition, and is there foundational information you could provide first, to make those leaps easier and more intuitive?
- What do they already know? What prior knowledge can you draw on? What concepts, memories, and experiences can you use as analogies or metaphors?
These questions don't necessarily require formal answers, but they inform everything about the structure and content of your explanation—they're "step zero" in figuring out how to explain a concept. For instance, this explanation is intended for Arbital users, so instead of being one long article, it's broken into standalone sections that allow readers to skip to the parts they're interested in.
If you’d like to get a bird's-eye view of what underlies a good explanation, take a look at the core concepts.
If you’d like to see an algorithm for generating good explanations, check out step-by-step.
If you’re interested in an analysis of specific explanations, visit examples.
If you’re just looking for quick, concrete next actions, go to tools and tactics.
Or, to continue with the basic overview, click next below!