In Explanations, Inspiration, Recommended Readings by Rebecca

If you learn something new, chances are you will run into unfamiliar words that label and describe what’s going on. Either you pause to look up the word or hope that the meaning of the word will become clearer within the context of the passage.

Often explanations fall prey to the curse of knowledge, a phrase coined by Chip and Dan Heath in their book, Made to Stick. The curse of knowledge describes how those of us doing the explaining are so familiar with the terms that we don’t even realize that others are tripped up by the new words.

Explanations can fail if difficult words are used too soon. The explainer may think they are sounding knowledgeable, but if the audience can’t understand it, the explanation doesn’t work. For example, the word “nomenclature” in the title of this post can be a big stumbling block if you don’t know the meaning. Nomenclature refers to the names or terms common to a particular body of knowledge. A more direct title might have been “Names for Things.”

Randall Munroe took the idea of simple explanations to the extreme. Using only the most common thousand words and blueprint drawings, Munroe is able to explain everything from nuclear reactors to ballpoint pens in his book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. (For an example, check out his Up Five Goer, otherwise known as a Saturn V rocket.)

We don’t have to go as far as Munroe, but being careful of how we lead into important new words will go a long way to improving explanations.