The Book All Technical Writers Should Read – The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever

The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever

It's not often that I recommend books to other technical communicators, but I've recently finished a book that I think many tech writers can learn from: The Art of Explanation by Lee LeFever. Now before you spit your tea out in amazement, let me just confirm that, yes, the book I am recommending isn't about some programming language, or a help authoring tool, or some other software. This is a book about our craft, not the tools we use in our work.Before I start, let me assure you that there is no advertising on my site whatsoever. I have no connection to anything that I recommend on here – I'm singing the praises of LeFever’s book because it genuinely is that good. Oh, and if you're one of those writers who thinks 'I've been writing for 10-20 years, I know what I am doing' or 'I studied communication theory years ago, I don't need this', all I will say is open your mind. I fall into both of those mind-sets and I learned a lot from the book, and also had a few reaffirming 'Yes, Lee, I agree completely. Why don't more writers understand that?' moments. Trust me, it's an enjoyable and interesting read that really could help you to improve your writing.

Who is Lee LeFever and Why should you Give a Monkey’s?

Lee Lefever is the owner of Common Craft and is a specialist in the creation of explanatory videos. You've probably seen his work on the web, as he has produced videos for Google and Dropbox. Here's one he uses for his own site:

So he’s not even a technical writer? Yes, that’s true, but he is an excellent communicator and explainer, and what he has to say is incredibly relevant to our work. And isn't that what we all are – explainers? (Notice that I didn't use the word teacher, which is something that will crop up in a later post). I first came across Lee’s work when looking into the principles of e-learning, so his influence reaches far beyond video creation.

Improve your Technical Writing by using the Art of Explanation

What is the key skill that a technical writer should have? Despite what many product managers and technical recruiters may think, it has nothing to do with technical knowledge or experience with help authoring tools. No, the key skill is the ability to explain; to know how to identify the audience, connect with them, and help them to understand by putting the technology in a context that they understand. Because if we cannot explain clearly, our message is lost, irrespective of the technical information we present.In his book, The Art of Explanation, Lee LeFever discusses the importance of explanation in communication and provides many examples and techniques that you can use to improve your technical writing. These principles and methods can be applied to all communications – software documentation, hardware documentation, wikis, sales literature, presentations, training classes, and more.

Why is Just as Important as How

Have you ever been asked to update someone else’s writing and wondered exactly what you are letting yourself in for? I do that all the time, and there are two things I quickly use to judge whether a document has been crafted with care:

  1. Has the writer used styles correctly (because we all know what a ball-ache it is to go through and apply them, don’t we?)
  2. Has the writer covered the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how to’?

It is the latter of these that has caused me the most conflict with other writers over the years. I've always said that just covering ‘how to’ is not good enough – as technical writers, we need to explain ‘why’ too. Because without knowing why they need to do something, the end user is just following instructions parrot-fashion; they are not learning. This is something that LeFever covers excellently in The Art of Explanation. He explains that context is so important in explanation, because if our words only explain the trees, how are users going to know about the forest? He also uses an interesting ‘cost’ system, where he gauges the cost of alienating potential members of the audience. His findings are that covering the bigger picture at the start (the ‘why’ ) does not do any harm to the effect of the message, even if you are communicating to an expert-level audience. But if you do not include the ‘why’, you have a high chance of alienating less-expert audience members. (There are reasons for this, which I have recently investigated via neuro-linguistic forums, and I’ll be posting about that soon).So if, like me, you have ever argued until you are blue in the face that the document needs to explain why, The Art of Explanation is just what you need. Hand a copy to those stubborn managers and writers who think ‘how to’ is the start and end of our profession, and let Lee do the donkey work of getting them on your side.

Targeting your Audience

It seems to me that every time I go on a LinkedIn forum, whether is it about copywriting, technical writing, or even neuro-linguistics, there is always some smart alec telling us to "know our audience". Of course, it is true, but we can’t always know the full scope of our audience, can we? This is something LeFever recognises and addresses incredibly well, in what is probably my favourite part of the book.On this subject, he uses a clever A to Z audience scale, with A representing those with little knowledge of the product/service and Z being those with expert knowledge.

LeFever Audience Scale

If you know your audience are technically capable (more towards the Z end of the scale), you can pitch your content at that end only. You should still include ‘why’ in your content, but you can get away with using accepted industry terms, etc. But if your audience could contain people from the middle or A end of the scale, you really need to think carefully about the language you use and the way you explain concepts. For the further down the scale the audience is, the more important the ‘why’ is – these people need the feature or product putting into context. You need to explain how it will benefit them and how it fits into the bigger picture of the product/system as a whole.As technical writers, sometimes it is difficult to know how expert our audience is, especially if we are working on a new product or a product that is aimed at a wide spectrum of end-users. But Lee must also experience this with his videos, so I asked him how he judges the aptitude and learning needs of his audiences. His answer was to try and focus on the core audience:

"My approach to this (whether it's based on storytelling style, learning style, etc.) is to recognize the different perspectives, but focus on the dominant one as the standard. My fear is negative consequences or at least diminishing returns from trying to be everything to everyone." Lee LeFever

Convincing Managers and Recruiters that they Don't Need a Subject Expert

I've lost count of the number of times I've had to fight this battle. I'm sure you've had the same sorts of conversations with prospective employers too: "How can you write about our product if you don't know it inside-out?", "We need to see that you've written in this industry before", yadda-yadda-yadda. These perspectives are often held by people who are experts in their own products and fail to see the bigger picture - that their customers may not be experts! (If you are writing exclusively for an expert audience, you probably do need expert knowledge or at least the ability to get it quickly). LeFever touches on this subject as he discusses 'the curse of knowledge', which originated in a book called 'Made to Stick' by Chip and Dan Heath:

"The idea behind the curse of knowledge is that when we know a subject very well, we have a difficult time imagining what it is like to not know it. This is a matter of empathy." - Lee LeFever

He goes on to explain the problems that non-experts experience when experts are unable to empathise with them. This is an issue that I've seen many, many times in my technical writing. Sometimes, you need someone who sees a product as the end-user sees it. In my opinion, there are three types of writer that can provide that:

  1. A tech writer who is completely new to the product
  2. A tech writer with expert knowledge and an unusual gift for empathising with non-experts
  3. A tech writer who falls between the two - very empathetic, quick learner and comfortable with technology, but resistant to becoming an expert.

What type of writer are you? I fall into category 3, which I'd guess is pretty common (although I come across many writers of a different type - start off as non-experts but later become experts and lose their empathy, at which point they are pretty much an SME who can write. Burdened by the curse of knowledge!).This section of the book made me wonder how does Lee LeFever deal with clients who think they need an expert to create their videos? So I asked the man himself, and this is what he said:

"This is a very real problem and I'm glad you brought it up. It's a tough problem and every situation is different. I don't have a panacea, but I'd like to make a couple of points...In this kind of situation, it's often a good time to talk about goals. What is the client trying to achieve? Most people are tuned to goals like sales and marketing or the respect of peers. These are worthy goals, but I think a powerful and often-neglected is understanding. If the person truly wants to present information in a form that makes understanding the primary goal, they may have to think differently. The technical accuracy of an academic paper won't contribute to the goal. The fully-approved brand communication copy may not help. They have to see that the goal of understanding means a new and different approach - and that is your challenge. It's not easy, but I think it matters.Secondly, I make this point in my talks (and briefly in the book): Explanations and driving directions have a lot in common. The best driving directions don't necessarily come from people who know the route the best (at "Z"). The best directions come from people who are able to forget the route that they know and can imagine what it's like to drive the route the first time. They can empathize with people at "D" on the scale and speak from that perspective. To me, this illustrates that being on the Z side of the scale is not a prerequisite for communicating. The best communications come from a combination of knowledge and empathy."

Storytelling, Using Visuals, and More

The Art of Explanation also provides many interesting insights into communication tricks that most of us will use at some point in our tech writing careers - storytelling (examples), visuals, descriptions that are tailored for a specific audience, and simplification. As with all areas of the book, LeFever explains why these are so useful to us, as communicators, and why they work as a means of explaining concepts and processes. There is also an interesting section on choosing the right medium for your message, which will be very useful to those writers who have the luxury of considering different types of media for their 'message'.

Required Reading for Technical Communicators

In the UK, the demise of technical communication degree and masters courses means that aspiring technical writers may miss out on the communication theory concepts that I was lucky to be taught. These principles are the real key to my work, and they will serve writers in many different fields. Thankfully, Lee LeFever's Art of Explanation covers many of the most important areas incredibly well. And in a style that is very accessible.This book will serve you well if you want to:

  • Learn about the art of explaining concepts and processes to different audiences
  • Improve your technical writing
  • Give yourself the skills to communicate more effectively in different mediums
  • Be able to deliver engaging, effective presentations
  • Write sales material that engages the audience from the start
  • Understand why your company's technical writing and other explanatory media succeeds or fails
  • Boost your confidence when faced with managers and writers who don't understand these principles.

If you are none of the above, I take my hat off to you sir/madam!

Craig Wright technical author

Craig Wright is an experienced technical writer based in Chesterfield, UK.  He hates writing about himself in the third person, so I shall stop now.

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