Describing or clarifying: How do we explain stuff?

So our company has an elevator pitch competition. The task is to explain in 30 seconds “What does our company do?”

The submissions indicate that “to explain” means different things to different people. To some, it means “to describe or summarise information”. To others, it means “to translate and clarify for others”.

The two meanings reach different audiences with different levels of success. Description and summary are best when you have a similar background and outlook as your audience. Translation and clarification are best to bridge differences between you and your audience. Such a difference could be much vs. little experience with a product or knowing how to set it up vs. having to use it every day. To bridge this difference, you have to put yourself into the users’ shoes and remember how it is not to know all the things you know now.

Technical communication skills, our experience when crafting content, and the way we can structure information let us excel in the translating and clarifying. And the better we know our audience, the better we are at it.

Developers and testers who contribute to user documentation frequently deliver very good descriptions – and technical communicators can help them by translating and clarifying them further, if necessary.

We often hear that “everybody can write”. But what it means is that many people can describe (and some don’t even do that very well) – but few can clarify as well as a technical communicator.

If the distinction between describing and clarifying resonates with you, I’m sure you can think of more examples.


2 Responses

  1. Welcome back, Kai!

    One on my mantras has long been “summarization is not explanation”. Summarization is what you do to encapsulate what you have already learned. Explanation is what you do to teach something to someone else. Anyone who has missed a meeting and been told just to go look at the whiteboard knows that summarization does not work as explanation.

    Summarization pulls together the threads of what you already know. It does not impart new information. But the curse of knowledge often leads us to confuse summarization with explanation. If a summary gets my head back in a familiar place, it has to get your head into that place too, right? Even if it is a place you have never been to.

    • Thanks, Mark. Your example of summarizing vs. explaining a missed meeting is spot on and makes the case nicely without delving into the more philosophical depths.

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