Explaining a Thing

October 22, 2020

“A simple statement is bound to be untrue. One that is not simple cannot be utilized.” – Paul Valéry

We explain things all the time in our daily lives. Usually, we don’t care about the efficiency at which we do so because the context tends to be inconsequential. But when we’re asked to make a presentation or write an academic essay, it quickly becomes apparent that explaining is not always so easy, and that our casual manner of doing so tends to be full of clutter.

Or maybe that’s just a me problem.

Either way, in this post, I want to briefly touch on the concept of explanation. Here we go.

The process of explanation

When we try to explain something, it means that we understand that thing on some level. I like to imagine the levels of understanding as an (not quite journalistic) inverted pyramid: at the top are generalizations, and at the bottom are technicalities. On each actual level, there’s a spectrum of knowledge—more on this later.

inverted pyramid

Usually, we try to explain at the audience’s perceived level of understanding, in the most concise way possible. When both the explainer and the audience are on relatively similar levels, explanation tends to go relatively smoothly. But when there are gaps in the levels of understanding, it can get a bit complicated.

inverted pyramid 2

Because now, as the explainer, we’ve got to figure out how to take something that we understand on a deeper level and make it comprehensible for someone who isn’t at our level of understanding—and that’s much easier said than done. So how do we do it?

To put it simply: we generalize, and then specify. We first resurface from the depths of our understanding to meet our audience at their level, and then guide them back down to the level of understanding that we want them to be at.

For example: if you asked me to explain how photosynthesis works, I would say something general like plants take in light energy to produce chemical energy (rising to meet you at your level of understanding). Then, if you wanted me to be a bit more specific, I would go a level and get more technical (descending back down); I might start talking about ATP, the light dependent and independent cycles, and other things that I forgot about from that unit in AP Bio. And on it would go.

This is the overall process of explanation that we attempt to go with. So what are the problems?

Why explaining can feel difficult

The first problem that comes to mind is the fact that there usually aren’t objective standards telling us what’s actually on each level of understanding (possibly because I just made the term up). A professional doctor would certainly know more about their field than a Pre-Med student, but the nuances of what they actually know isn’t immediately clear. Consequently, it’s not always so obvious as to how much we’re supposed to be simplifying when we explain.

Secondly, there’s the age old problem of how we literally go about conveying the information.

The language we use, the visual or auditory aids we employ, the background information we provide, the coherent structure and length of an explanation—these are all factors that impact our audience’s willingness to understand what we’re explaining, and factors that we constantly struggle with as we attempt to articulate our thoughts. Practicing our communication skills will definitely help, but only up to a certain point; after all, there is no “best” way to explain something. It’s a subjective matter that depends on what works best for the explainer and the understander.

Finally, there’s this crucial, inherent tradeoff that’s always made anytime we explain: to make things more understandable, we informalize—and by doing so, we necessarily lose information. For example, I think we can all agree that there’s some fundamental difference between reading The Great Gatsby and it’s one page CliffsNotes summary. The details and specific wordings are left out of the shortened summary, of course, but there’s something more essential lost in that reduction: the intangible experience of reading The Great Gatsby, which itself gives context and greater understanding to the significance of the plot and the themes explored in the novel.

The same idea applies to those long-winded videos, lectures, or blog articles that you finish and think, “It was such a simple idea that they wanted to convey—why did they make it so unnecessarily complicated?” Of course it seems simple to you—after you sat through the in-depth lecture; after you took the time to follow the explanation; after you descended down the levels of understanding. Obviously, the generalizations become more understandable after comprehending the specifics.

Some closing inquiries

There’s a lot more surrounding explanation and language that I want to explore, but that’ll be a post for another time. For now, I’d like to end on a few questions—mostly as a reminder for my future self, but perhaps the few people reading this will find some value in contemplating them as well:

  • How do we get better at explanation, or at being concise?
  • How do we, or how should we teach concision?
  • How do different mediums of communicating information affect our ability to explain and understand things?
  • How should, or how does a better understanding of explanation change the way we interact with language?