How to Explain Your Ideas with Clarity and Power

How good are you at explaining your ideas? Do your learners hurry to implement your training? To be honest, writing for clarity is actually tougher than it seems.  

Explanations often tend to be somewhat dry and uninspiring … and when we fail to captivate our learners, we fail to achieve our training objectives too.   So what can you do to explain with clarity and pizzazz?  

The Zoom-in-Zoom-Out Technique You know this technique from photography, don’t you? Zoom-out and you display the big picture.  Zoom-in and you show details.

Writing works the same. The best writing combines satellite-style zooming out with telephoto-like zooming. When zooming in you see the mother lion licking her young; you see the bee gathering honey from a clover; you see the withering petals of a tulip.  You see one specific situation … one flower, one person, or one animal doing one specific thing.  

Satellite photography is the complete opposite.  Instead of tiny details you see patterns.  You see the colourful fields with millions of tulips in the Netherlands.  You see how the fields and roads are flooded after a rain bomb passes through.  

In photography, you have all sorts of lenses and you create pictures with different levels of zoom.  But in writing, you alternate mostly between the extremes:

  • Captivate learners by using the telephoto lense … tell the story of one person in one specific situation.
  • Describe the satellite image to explain the wider picture, the trends, the lessons, the statistics
  • As much as possible, skip past the half-zoomed topics.  

The Zoom-in-Zoom-out technique helps you explain anything to anybody; it helps you captivate learners, even with the most boring topics.

Chip and Dan Heath apply the technique in all their books to educate business readers.  

Below follows an example from their book “The Power of Moments”. 

The story shows how important praise is, and it starts when a student, called Sloop, has been told to mouth words because her voice doesn’t blend with the rest of the choir. 

Then another teacher asks her to stay after practice:
“Sloop was hesitant at first but eventually lowered her guard.  She said, ‘We sang scale after scale, song after song, harmonising and improving, until we were hoarse.” 

Then the teacher took Sloop’s face in her hands and looked her in the eyes and said “You have a distinctive, expressive, and beautiful voice.  You could have been the love child of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.” 

As she left the room that day, she felt as if she’d shed a ton of weight.  “I was on top of the world,” she said.  Then she went to the library to find out who Joan Baez was.”

Once the story has demonstrated the impact of praise, the authors zoom out to share the big picture: “The importance of recognition to employees is inarguable.  But here’s the problem:  While recognition is a universal expectation, it’s not a universal practice. 

(…) More than 80 per cent of supervisors claim they frequently express appreciation of their subordinates, while less than 20 per cent of the employees report that their supervisors’ express appreciation more than occasionally.”  Call it the recognition gap. 

Zoomed-out statements … facts, figures, trends and big pictures … only become powerful when the zoomed-in stories have meaning.

“Facts give stories substance   Stories give facts meaning.  Substance and meaning are two of the most powerful factors in any explanation.” Lee Le Fever (From: The Art of Explanation)