A beginner's guide to explaining things


by Duncan Sabien Jul 16 2016 updated Jul 29 2016

Good explanations can be very different, but most of them have a few things in common.

Estimated read time (main path): 30 minutes
Estimated read time (entire branch): 90 minutes

When you try to explain something to someone, there are a lot of moving parts.

The goal of an explanation is to transfer understanding. There's some concept that makes sense to you—it holds together internally, and connects meaningfully to other pieces of knowledge—and you want that concept to make sense to the other person, as well.

In fact, the phrase "make sense" is a pretty accurate one. If you're explaining something well, you're making sense for the other person. You're taking things that would otherwise be confusing, disorganized, or incomplete, and laying them out in order such that the other person can understand them with minimal effort.

Explanations are at the core of what humans do best—they’re what enable us to know and understand far more than we could discover on our own. If you’re interested in sharing knowledge (or acquiring the knowledge of others), then you’re interested in a world where people are better at explaining.

This branch of Arbital was written to highlight some of the most common errors people make when trying to explain things, and to give you tools for noticing and correcting those errors. In addition to this basic overview, it includes a glossary detailing the core concepts underlying good explanations, a set of checklist questions for creating or improving your own tutorials and write-ups, an analysis of multiple high-quality examples, and a list of specific tools and tactics that will help take your explanations from good to great.

Smarter together