The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever (Lessons To Take From)

With years of experience in creating explanations for organization and educators, Lee Lefever has discovered that inviting people to care and be motivated to learn more about our ideas is a challenge.

With the mistakes and techniques that he learned from building his own company, stories of other people, and doing projects with high-end companies, he was able to accumulate strategies and advices that would lead us into better explainers.

Lee pointed out that we all take explanation for granted. Because it is a natural part of us growing up, while in fact it is a skill that we can definitely shape up as a tool for accomplishing our goals.

This article will be spoiling you with some of the juicy advices that you find in the book. But need not worry, this is a peek into the mystery of the book, there are so much more depth, so much more invaluable insights in the book that this post will never do it justice.

Great explainers have the ability to picture themselves in another person’s shoes and communicate from that perspective.

To create an excellent explanation requires us to imagine ourselves in the audience’s shoes. By seeing the world from their point of view, we help them feel at home. For example, tell direction to a foreign tourist.

Explanations Answer the Question “Why?”

As Lee said, explanation is not just a package of facts, but a presentation that tell us why they should care, why twitter is so popular, why it makes sense to save for retirement.

The idea behind the curse of knowledge is that when we know a subject very well, we have a difficult time imagining what is it like not to know it.

Assumption of just one person’s level of confidence in the subject being explained would not cause much of a bias. However, explaining to a group of people new information, you have no choice but to assume their level of knowledge in that subject. And more often than not, the mismatch to what they actually really know is every common.

For example, if you work in a financial field, then words such as amortization, depreciation and vesting would become part of your language, and pretty much the same to your colleagues. The words, the language, they have become part of your culture, and subconsciously, we start to lose touch with how they might be unfamiliar to others. Therefore, it would not be incredibly wise to use these words at family or friends reunions.

The need to appeal to experts also has the potential to make our explanations fail.

It is undenying productive to be inspired by experts, most of us idolize those professionals, and of course want them to see our work. However, by the need to look smart to those individuals, we ignore our ability to make everyone in the room feel smart, and that would unfortunately lead to explanation failure.

What makes an explanation so insidious is that it has the power to ruin the best, most productive, life changing ideas in just a few sentences.

A story of Andre, an IT graduate from Stanford University, involving him starting up a product with other competent engineers, who put effort and passion to overcome problems in the journey. However, a few months after the launch day, less and less people used his product. When he set out to find out why, he discovered that the marketing of the product had an explanation problem. And to solve the problem, they need a plan.

The “explanation scale”, a simple A-Z scale model created by Lee to help visualize the audience, account for their needs, and move them from misunderstanding to understanding via a carefully crafted explanation.

When encountering an explanation problem, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where are you on the scale regarding a specific idea?
  • Where is your audience?
  • What assumptions are making about their level of understanding?
  • Are your current explanations accounting for everyone on the scale?
  • Should they?

Stepping outside the bubble

Andre and his team are smart people. In his of explanation, he prefers to express himself in a vernacular way, showing his knowledge and intelligence. However, this style of conveyance only speaks directly and comprehensively to the experts, the people at the Z level of the explanation scale. Therefore, with all the technical words, shortcuts and acronyms in his message, it only makes sense to the people within the bubble of experts. Thus, he needs to step outside the bubble and imagine his users at the “A” end of the scale.

They need to control their urge to look smart and rather make targeted audience feel smart.

The solution to that problem– is packaging.

What goes into the packaging?

Essential elements for packaging ideas to account for the audiences’ needs:

  • Agreement— this builds up more confidence and connections with the audience. For example: “We can all agree that gas prices are rising.”
  • Context— transit to the points where you think why it matters to the audience. For instance, you can say ” More of your income is going to pay for the transportation.”
  • Story— narrate a person who took the chance and experience a change perspective and emotions. “Meet Sally; she’s tired of paying so much for gas and needs alternatives. Here’s what she found.”
  • Connections— connect the story with analogies that people already understand. “Sally could see that taking the bus is like multitasking because she can work and commute at the same time.”
  • Description–focuses on how versus why. “Sally found that she could save more than $20 a week by taking the bus three times weekly.”
  • Conclusion— wraps up and provides the next step with the focus on the audience. ” The next time gas prices get you down, remember…”


As important as ideas and facts, context plays a major role in explaining what those ideas and facts mean.

Whether it is explaining the topic of discussion to a friend, doing a presentation about your research, teaching something to a student, or presenting your new product, it is crucial that we build the context first before we jump into the details.

As Lee put it, ” To talk about the forest first and then about the trees”.

To dig down to the metaphor, here are 2 of Lee’s examples:

Example 1:

Imagine you arrive to your friends who are in deep conversations. And for a while, you gathered some information pieces such as Chelsea and Arsenal, and you thought they were talking about English Premier League Soccer. Then you other names such as Barcelona and Juventus, which then confused you and you can’t make sense out of it all.

And then your friend says “Oh, sorry, we’re talking about UEFA Champion League, which brings together the best teams of Europe. Specifically, we’re talking about the English teams and how they are doing in league play.”

Example 2:

Angela who has been very interested in business, she loved working with numbers and has great attention to details, which are the skills needed to be accountants. So she decided to attend an accounting workshop which picked up from an ad in her local newspaper. For an hour with the accounting instructor Mr. Tidwell, as he was pointing the tools and terms such as credits, debits, revenues, and expenses, Angela started to question her ability to be an accountant. She didn’t understand how that would apply in real life.

However, after meeting with a different teacher that her friend introduced, Ms. Stowe, who asked her to talk about her experience in business, about her previous jobs, explained to her well about how business runs. For an adequate amount of time with Ms. Stowe, she didn’t hear the work debit once. She was first taught about the basics, how the money flows in the business, how businesses make profit. As Angela has now learnt about the basics of business and why accounting is important for management of the business, she is more excited and can make sense of what the details.

Context in Explanation – We Can all Agree

Starting your explanation with declarative, non-controversial statements that everyone would agree on is not only a good way to engage the audience, but also a help in explaining the forest and enhancing the credibility of what about to come next. Here are a few examples:

“The web is becoming more social. Forrester research says that…”

“More applications are being moved to the cloud. Examples include…”

“Video is a growing form of communication on the Web. YouTube has grown by X amount.”

Context and Pain

The storytelling that depicts pain plays into human emotions, which therefore creates more understanding. The storyline goes with a character wants or needs something, and must endure pain to get it.


Meet Bob, he has a problem and feels pain

He discovers a solution and tries it

Now he feels happy

Don’t you want to feel like Bob?

Overall, in building a context, we have to do a good job in explain why? As in why should they care?


Storytelling is appropriate for every situation, however specific kinds of storytelling can make a difference in the understandability of an idea.

The goal is to of course- create an explanation people remember because it made them feel something.

Here is an example of explaining blogs in 2 different ways:

A blog is a personal journal published on the WWW consisting of discrete entries (“posts”) typically displayed in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first. Blogs are usually the work of a single individual, occasionally of a small group, and often are themed on a single subject. — Wikipedia, 2012


Meet Allison. She recently created a website where she posts information about her experiences raising a puppy. Her website is an online journal, or blog, where she posts a new entry that appears at the top of her page every few days. The stream of entries has enabled her to connect with dog lovers from around the world.

Stories, in the context of explanations, need facts. And facts can be explained much more effectively in the form of a story. By adding a person to a narrative, we make the facts more meaningful and interesting.

Personification and Story

You’d guess that stories are often a good fit for explanations where the main subject is related to human actions or experiences. To your surprise, that’s not necessarily the case. But how to we tell a story about the formation of a comet though? The answer is: personification.

Personification is applying human traits to objects. Utilizing personification can make complex ideas seem more human and real, by relating the idea in terms of emotion, desires, and needs.


Let’s say your uncle Jed just immerged from the wood after being lost for 30 years. He was not exposed to the modern technology, and therefore was curious about e-mails. Of course, e-mailing has become second nature to you, thus you would have work on putting yourself in uncle Jed’s shoes. Explaining to him the details of the email is exacting talking about the trees, hence you have to realize what Jed already knows. In this case, he is familiar with the traditional way for sending letters and mails with a physical mailbox via a postal service. This serves a perfect connection for your explanation to say that e-mails are essentially “letters via computers.”

Another example of explaining Netflix:

Few can afford to have a giant library of DVDs, so it makes sense to rent them. But your local movie rental store suffers from a lack of selection and inconvenience . You make a trip to the score to buy a DVD and found out that  your choices are sold out.

Building-on versus Establishing

Connections can be built on existing knowledge rather than trying to establish a completely new idea. As simple as it sounds, it is easily forgotten in the context of explanation. When we’re asked to explain something, we often approach it in a new idea perspectives, as we assume the idea is new to the audience.

Analogy, Metaphor and Simile

Using analogy, metaphor and simile can aide us in establishing a connection between two ideas, which is key in making ideas easy to understand.

One example of metaphor here, “My classroom is a zoo”, meaning my classroom is unruly and the members are wild.


On an explanation scale, someone at B might want to see the why of an idea then how. Yet someone at R, who already already understands the big picture of the big idea may need explanation that put more focus on the how. This individual would have more interest in the details and tactical information which is the tree.


A tech-savvy adult who was asked to explain what virtualization  means, from his perspective, it is next to impossible to explain it to a person with elementary knowledge about computers.

Explanations from experts would tend to be:

  • Accurate but incomprehensible
  • Detailed but ineffective
  • Filled with new words
  • Presented without context or application

However if you as an expert want to really help a person who is not expert to understand the concept, here are some advices:

  • Do not make assumptions about what people already know
  • Use the most basic language possible
  • Zoom out and try to see the subject form the broadest perspective possible
  • Forget the details and exceptions and focus on big ideas
  • Trade accuracy for understanding
  • Connect the basic ideas to ideas the audience already understands


Imagine you’re going into a tie shop to buy a tie, which something very simple. Then as you walk into the store, the incredible variety of colors, shapes, fabrics and patterns is just overwhelming. One might think that having every option available on the table would be liberating, which is misleading.

In this situation, you are faced with the “Paradox of Choice”, which prevents you from feeling happy with any choice.

Dealing with issue, an approach to this would be to limit your choices before you visit the shop. Lets say you chose a specific color, simple design, this will help you make the right decision with focus and confidence.

This would apply in the same manner for crafting explanations. Not every ideas and styles can fit into one explanation. You have to take some ideas behind the shed and murder them. Limiting your choices and eliminating others would serve to shape your explanation to move forward.

Here are the constraints that we consider in explaining an idea:

  • Timeline
  • Duration
  • Location
  • Format
  • Idea volume
  • Language (how technical are the audience)

Preparing for and Writing an Explanation

Writing is a logical step in the process of transforming an idea into something useful. The key to better explanation is having your script written down, where they can evolve before being presented.

Big ideas- with specific goals, focus on the title  of the explanation, look for potential to fill a gap, to create an explanation where none exist or where one exists in less usable forms.

Research and discovery – as important as packaging existing facts into new, more understandable forms, we also need to look at how they are communicated or explained in the past. Instead of explaining the idea that could mean differently to different people, it is more innovative and creative to think of it in terms of metaphor, and focus on why people should care.

Script writing – this is where the ideas come to life and take shape. It is a rule thumb to know your script limit. For example, you want your explanation to be 1 minute long, you would better be preparing a maximum of 150 words script.

Here is an overview of the elements of a basic script, in order:

  • Agreement
  • Context- problem/ pain and vision of solution
  • Story
  • Connection
  • Description
  • Realization of solution – how6yyy
  • Call to action


In giving reasons to support an idea or a plan, ask yourself why for each of the reason that you make that people should care about. Start out by making accurate, noncontroversial statements that everyone can agree on, then package the ideas in a way that appeals to the audience. Solution is to come up with stories unrelated to the idea, characters, metaphors, analogies, etc.


Ten lessons learned:

  • State your intentions early – by stating your intention early, by building context is essential for achieving your specific explanation goal.
  • Solve problems – work around the what the explanation lack, whether it’s the why  part or the how  part
  • Keep it short – people in this era are busy nowadays, therefore their attention spans short designed to only grab a handful of ideas
  • Reduce noise – we are too surrounded by noise in our lives which is the reason why most of the things we here are not too pronounced to grab our attention. Therefore, it is wise to explain in an environment or setting that is quite enough for people to focus their attention on our explanation.
  • Use visuals – many people can grab more through visuals. By combining visuals and audio, we can maximize our ability to effectively explain to the audience.
  • Embrace imperfection
  • Slow down
  • Be timeless – make your explanation as valuable in the future as it is today, don’t emphasize on temporary trends or brand in your explanation.
  • Be accessible – find a medium through which your materials are accessible to people.
  • Have fun! – be creative! You can use unexpected visuals, hand gestures, humor, or even sarcasms.


There’s a reason why there’s a lack of cooking shows on the radio. They exist but are few, because the medium is the best fit for the message. Cooking is best when it’s visual, or ever better, live. One of the keys to getting the most out of an explanation is being deliberate about the media in which you choose to present it.

Explanations, by definition, are meant for sharing. In isolation, they wither and die.

This chapter devoted to giving your explanations an opportunity to flourish and potentially, live forever.

In communication your ideas to others, you have multiple options at your disposal. To think through these options, it helps to group evaluate them in terms of pros and cons:

  • Media options
    • Text
    • Image/graphic
    • Audio
    • Video
    • Live demonstration
  • Presentation modes
    • Documents
    • Presentation/ slideshow
    • Website
    • Webinar
    • Video
    • Web-based presentation apps
  • Recording and distribution options – undoubted in a face-to-face method of explanation, the idea is communicated, the time has passed, there’s no going back in time to review the explanation again. Therefore, other than the audience presented, no one hears or know about the idea, unless,  the explanation was recorded in some way, be it documents, books, audio, or video, etc. that people can share for their friends and family.


Words don’t do the idea justice.

It is often overlooked how much a simple visual can capture a way to communicate a powerful and transformational idea.

Just a simple chart of two axis, and a curve representing the demand can be interpreted and applied to many different concepts.

To strategically explain an idea or solve a problem, we dissect the idea into 6 problem clusters, each represents a piece of a pie chart:

  • Who and what the problems- what is the problem and who does it affect
  • How much – measuring and counting
  • When problems – scheduling and timing of the challenge
  • Where – pointing out directions and how things fit together
  • How problems – shows how things influence one another
  • Why problems – see the big picture

For further detail, we can creatively add more visuals to each of the cluster, for example:

  • Who and what problems: create a portrait for each who could have the problem
  • How much problems: use a chart to represent goals and progress
  • When problems: use a timeline chart to display the each phase toward achieving the goal
  • Where problems – use a map to show how things connect together or work
  • How problems – use a flowchart with yes or no questions and instructions to help solve the problems
  • Why problems – use a multiple plot speculations of the outcome from different approaches

Mastering all the techniques provided above, you can make explanations more visible and interesting, whether it’s among colleagues, your family, or your friends. When you’re asked to explain something, see it as an opportunity to develop, evolve stories and connections that are more powerful than any answer you’ve given before.

Seize the opportunity! Seize the day!

Click here to go to Lee Lefever’s Common Craft‘s website.