STC13: Lee LeFever on the art of explanation

Lee LeFever is the founder of CommonCraft, best known for the instructional videos with the drawn paper cut-outs that a hand moves around as a voice explains how stuff works. He presented their approach to explanation which focus on empathy with the audience to foster understanding. (This is part of my coverage of the STC Summit 2013 in Atlanta.)

Explanations are hard and try as you might, they can still fail – as anyone knows who has given driving directions to a stranger and then seen them make the wrong turn.

The key to good explanations is empathy with the “explainee”, so you can explain something in their terms. What gets in the way is the “curse of knowledge” which means we cannot remember what it was like not to know how get to the specialty store or how a cloud service like twitter or dropbox works.

To show how explanations increase understanding, Lee used an explanation scale. First you have little understanding, and you care about the big idea, the “why?” Why should you care about a cloud service, why is this important to you? Once you have the “why?” down, you’re ready for basic understanding of the essentials, the “how”? How does a tool work, how can I use it to my benefit? To get expert understanding, you assemble more and more details for different scenarios – and before long, you have all the knowledge to explain this thing yourself!

Four features can make explanations successful:

Context anchors an explanation in shared experience and creates agreement. We all know what it feels like to have misplaced your keys, and we can agree that it’s very annoying. Context is important to show why something is relevant to you.

Story ties together a problem and its solution in a narrative arc. That can be as simple as: “Bob has a problem. Bob finds a solution. Bob is happy!” Story invites our empathy because we can identify with Bob and root for him. It illustrates facts, such as cause and effect, in real life.

Connections can provide a shortcut to other stories we already know. When the producers of the 1979 science fiction movie “Alien” sought funding, they connected their project to a recent successful movie in three simple words: “Jaws in Space”.

Analogies can emphasize “what’s really going on”. Consider an encounter with a bear and how it sets off your “fight-or-flight” impulse with stress hormones. Now transfer that experience: “Imagine the bear comes home from the bar every night.” This analogy gives you a good impression what it feels like to be the child or partner of an abusive alcoholic.

Lee closed by sharing several examples, both from his CommonCraft videos and elsewhere.

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STC13: User Assistance, Tech Comm, and Learning

The session “User Assistance, Tech Comm, and Learning” brought together four seasoned professionals to discuss common grounds between tech comm and e-learning: Nicky Bleiel, who moderated, Kevin Siegel, Saul Carliner, and Matt Sullivan. (This is part of my coverage of the STC Summit 2013 in Atlanta.)

The panel, moderated by Nicky Bleiel. Photo by @viqui_dill.

The panel, moderated by Nicky Bleiel. Photo by @viqui_dill.

Saul’s opening statement pointed out important differences between tech comm and training:

  • Tech comm doesn’t aim at information retention, but training does.
  • Tech comm’ers mainly create content, but trainers mainly teach, whether online or “in real life”.

Yet there are large overlaps between the disciplines and their practice, especially in “informal learning”, specifically, in the purpose, the content, and the consumer’s awareness of learning.

Kevin added further common values and features which both share:

  • Brevity in topics, in e-learning lessons (typically less than 5 minutes), or in a video (less than 2 minutes)
  • Step-by-step instructions in task topics and lessons
  • Direct address of the user as “you”

Matt explained how he focused on pragmatic information delivery where his single-sourcing workflow almost automatically combines “teaching and telling” in documents.

In the discussion that followed, the panelists addressed further aspects of that intersection of tech comm and training:

  • By emphasizing user action and tasks over functionality descriptions, you can offer resourceful users interactions and showing and telling to mix and match. However, exactly targeting your audience always precisely is usually not possible (neither in training nor in tech comm), so resist the temptation to “helicopter-parent” your learners.
  • That intersection works well with thought-through minimalism (which is not the same as writing in a concise manner).
  • Selecting the right channel and format can benefit both purposes, tech comm and training, tremendously, whether you choose videos or interactions or text.
  • Sample projects can be helpful to support and illustrate both,  learning and, to a lesser extent, documentation. They can be used as templates for a quick start to explore user scenarios. Personas are a great idea, too, but they’re of limited value as long as they don’t support the person(a)’s task.

In closing, the panelists pointed out that the focus of tech comm and e-learning alike is on people, not theories, methods or tools. In either domain, all users are different and many are extrinsically motivated by policy, law or certification to learn. So make it easy on them and keep them moving along swiftly.