What Makes a Good Explanation?

by Chris Stones

The goal of an explanation is to translate a new concept into a language you already understand. To do so an explanation connects new knowledge with old knowledge. Regardless of what is being explained; be it concept, skill or experience a good solid explanation changes you but only if you are ready for change.

I endeavors to deliver good explanations via this site so let's chat about what I consider good explanations to have.

The 5 Ingredients for a Good Explanation

1. A Good Explanation is Atomic

Atomic as in from atomus, meaning indivisible in Latin, meaning that the explanation should be independent and as self contained as possible. There ought to be one concept to cover and covering that concept requires all of the details presented within the explanation. Furthermore if they are all necessary details the explanation can not be divided any further least it lose it's potency.

It follows that there should be no fluff or tangential topics explored during the execution of the explanation. The message should be on point and hit you like a missile hitting a silo from a thousand miles away. Only, not destructive. Think more like a useful missile of helpful knowledge and less fire and total destruction. That's what we're going for here.

Of course the explanation might not take up a whole video. But once it is done there can be reactions and thoughts about it. I'm saying any side chattering during the actual explanation is bad not comments before or after.

2. A Good Explanation ONLY uses terms you know or stand-ins where necessary

Put another way, a good explanation only uses terminology you know or quickly plasters over unknown terms with useful analogies.

It's not easy to explain every single relevant term necessary for an explanation. You might say an explanation is built of both essential terms and non-essential terms. For example, consider the task of explaining driving a car. Generally, a driver does not need to know what happens when they turn the key; only the fact that they need to know a key is something that you insert and turn. The knowledge behind how a car actual works is non-essential to the explanation for how to drive a car.

However, to be effective, a lot of explanations will need to give you some kind of an idea for a term without forcing you into specifics. It happens when there are aspects of a new term necessary for understanding but you lack context for understanding the term itself just yet.

For example, take the Memory Leaks movie. The term memory block actually has a more technical meaning but that extra detail is irrelevant to conveying the idea of a memory leak. When explaining what memory leaks are you can really think of memory blocks as blocks. Just pieces of stuff that a program is either holding onto or not. You could say that using physical wooden blocks is a good stand-in metaphor for memory blocks in this context because they model the only aspects that matter relative to the topic. Namely, that they are pieces of stuff you can group together. The fact that they are also literally blocks is a handy gimmick.

3. A Good Explanation is Correctly Scaled

How much detail is enough for you? Often it takes less detail to explain what something is versus explaining how to use something. The level of detail or scope of the explanation rests on the end goal.

In the Memory Leaks movie I don't go into details having to do with the minutiae of how memory is actually managed in the computer. There is no mention of memory pointers or dereferencing values and operating system allocation rules. A terse explanation using all that terminology might be necessary for an advanced software developer learning how to fix memory leaks but not for the newly minted weekend coder that just wants to know why their program keeps crashing.

4. A Good Explanation makes Logical Sense

A good explanation has a clear logic that connects your old knowledge to the new concept presented. Consider a clock, if you put the same gears, sprockets and fasteners in a bag and wound it would it tell you the time? Like a well oiled clock the parts of an explanation need to fit together smoothly for conceptual illumination to occur.

If it ties logically together a good explanation could be written out as a series of statements with terms properly defined much the way a mathematical proof is. That's the meat of the concept but to stomach that kind of dry content you would expect the explainer to garnish it with interesting metaphors and entertaining manifestations.

So long as none of that gets in the way of the logic.

5. A Good Explanation is well paced, well ordered and clear.

Let's summarize this as the no overload rule.

A rushed disorganized unclear rant will not make things happen between your ears. Try rattling off perfect logic in a rushed fashion and see how many people go, Huh? Or alternatively see if you can throw a snooze fest with the slow erosion of a monotonous drone session.

Basically if pacing is lively but not too lively we'll all reach the finish line more or less in one piece.

And then some more considerations...

Understanding flourishes when the right explanation meets the right person. Someone motivated, confident, at ease and open to new insights with a willingness to play, think and puzzle over new information eases the transition from not-knowing to knowing. From confusion to solution. From new to known. This path is best followed at a leisurely pace with these traits as the grease in the explainational machinery. And while these qualities are not often within the explainer's control they can be acknowledged as important especially for difficult and demoralizing subjects.

Everyone needs a pep talk every now and again.

And furthermore here are some optional things I feel a good explanation should have. In the ideal world, a good explanation, even an exceptional one meets someone with all the right qualities and then highlights the following.

1. A Reason to Know. A Motive.

I almost said this was required but since it can't really be given that would make my goal nearly impossible. The reason to learn something is more often discovered by those seeking the answers. On this site, it might happen when a visitor lands on some topic deep down in the connected maze of nodes and needs to backtrack until they understand the prerequisite terminology.

Again I'll stress that it is their motive for I can only talk about a motive but it won't be their motive. Their motive is theirs and is unique and fits their life and fires them up in the mornings and lulls them to sleep at night. Their motive comes from their character and desires.

2. Entertaining, Unexpected and Charming

Whether via comedy or drama, we should feel something about what we learn. The difference between a good explanation and a great one is measured by the resulting laugh, gasp or vocalized, Ah Ha!

3. A Human Perspective on the Topic

What does this topic mean to us? Why should we care? Whom does it affect? What is the human cost? How does this help or hurt people? The simple fact that we are human shifts are reality to questions such as these and eventually all knowledge and experience doubles back upon human considerations.

4. Hardworking Metaphors

The bread and butter of engaging explanations. A complex idea unfolds with the right metaphorical insight. It can simplify discussion, illuminate details and provide a toe-hold for review. Certainly, the Swiss Army Knife of explaining. Pick your metaphors carefully because you'll want to get a lot of mileage out of them.

And one of my favorites is the OS Cafe. When I'm discussing a computer operating system I compare it to a cafe complete with customers as programs, the internet as the internet, seats as memory space and meals as CPU time. Armed with this metaphor complicated security notions are as simple to see as stopping people from getting behind the counter.

In Closing

And that's it. My first stab at what makes good explanations good; formulated just in time to outline and write the primary content for the site. You can be sure I'll update this as I learn more in the process. Until then I'll see you out there. And hopefully, I'll be making sense.