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[Editor’s Note: Lee LeFever of Seattle’s Common Craft, known for making explanatory videos for the likes of Google and Twitter, has written a new book, The Art of Explanation. In this special column for GeekWire, he shares key tenets for startups trying to explain their businesses.]

Meet Alex. He’s a startup founder with a technical background.  For the past year, he and his team have been refining their product and recently decided to to start talking about it publicly.

But something was wrong. Each time Alex explained it, people seemed to tune out. They blankly stared at him or subtly rolled their eyes.  His confidence gradually deflated, and made him question the value of their work. How would this ever be successful if he couldn’t get people interested in his product?

Alex’s problem was not design, engineering, funding or marketing — it was explanation.  Without the ability to make his product easy to understand, all of their investment may be wasted.

At a recent conference, a CEO asked about his product and he gave her an overview including the programming platform, how it works and a list of features. She smiled and asked coyly “That’s your explanation?” He nodded self-consciously. In a surprise move, she offered to help.

She took him on a tour of explanation basics and showed him that explanation is a skill that can be learned and improved.  To start, she made a few big points.

“First, think about understanding as something that has a cost.  If the cost seems too high, people will tune out and your explanation may fail. You’ve got to help them feel confident that your product is easy to understand and worth their investment in time and attention.

Alex imagined the explanation of his product as a series of steps that invite people to care.

The CEO continued by outlining a few key ideas.  “An explainer’s job is to make an idea easy to understand and to do that, you must focus on empathy. Try to imagine how your words and ideas sound to your audience, look for potential confusion and simplify.”

Alex could see that his technical language, which seemed normal to him, caused people to lose confidence. He had to look for specific words and phrases that could cause problems and find simpler alternatives.

She continued, “A great way to start an explanation is to build context. Start with the forest (big ideas, existing problems, pain) before talking about the trees (product features, value proposition). This gives the audiences a foundation – a first step to understanding.

Alex could see that he’s been so focused on the trees that people never saw the forest.

“Once you’ve built context,” she said, “Offer people a way to visualize your product in action and remember what it does. Tell a simple story. Your story could be about someone in pain who discovers your product and now feels relieved.”

Lee LeFever

It made sense. His beta users told those stories – he just needed to make it snappy.

“Oh, one more thing.  Connections. The easiest and quickest way to make the idea clear is to connect it to something the person already understands.  Use analogies and metaphors. A very simple example is to say that a boat is like a car for water. Is your product like something they know? Give them a connection to get started.”

As much as he thinks his product is unique, he can see that making quick connections could help.  Maybe his product is a little like a DVR or voicemail, things everyone knows well.

As Alex took notes, the CEO was reminded of a strategy that helped her. She said “If you’re serious about this, sit down for 20 minutes and write out your explanation. Flesh out the big ideas.  Share it, get feedback. This will give you an outline for conversations like ours.”

The thought had never occurred to him. He needed to think ahead and writing his explanation gave him a way to plan it.

Later that night Alex couldn’t stop thinking about what he learned.  He remembered his past explanations and realized he wasn’t giving his audience a low-cost invitation to care. Now he can see that by focusing on confidence, building context, telling simple stories and making connections, he can offer easy steps to understanding and loving his product. 

Lee LeFever is the founder and Chief Explainer of Common Craft and author of The Art of Explanation – Making Your Ideas, Products and Services Easier to Understand (Wiley, 2012).  Follow him on Twitter @leelefever or @commoncraft.

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