Explaining and understanding

It doesn’t really matter much the subject; you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to someone else so that they understand it.  And that job, of explaining with clarity, gets more difficult the less the person you’re explaining it to has in terms of background or grasp of the foundational aspects of the topic or subject in question.

This, I believe, is leadership.  And it’s the reason that most company leaders are such masterful storytellers.  Its particularly true in start-up businesses where, by definition, the founders & leaders are trying to explain a disruptive or new market concept to employees, investors, vendors, landlords, lenders, and the like.

The enemy of a good explanation are buzzwords and catch phrases.  While useful as shorthand, they get a (deservedly) bad rap when used to fill in gaps in understanding.  I use them, but even so I occasionally wince at my own use and often try to rewind and describe using real terms and words.

What a great explainer does well:

  1. Audience alignment – seek to understand and then tailor the explanation appropriately to not only the people, but also the context of the situation.  A room of 500 for instance is very different than a group of 5 huddled around a dining room table.
  2. Personalize – the story has to resonate with the audience.  It’s the reason so many people overuse sports analogies.  Make the story metaphorical to something the recipient understands means they can quickly grasp the concept and the reason why it matters.
  3. Uncover human motivations – great stories capture your emotion, and the flip side is also true.  There’s no way to truly explain, much less, inspire someone unless the storyteller understands the underlying human elements of a subject.  They have to make the connection emotionally to be a master explainer.
  4. Get intimate with data – all great explanations come to a – worse than death – fate if the data doesn’t support the story.  If its just emotion and opinion it won’t stand up long, and the people with “sharp pencils” (e.g., money) walk.  The master explainer closes the deal when he lives and breathes the data.

I believe all great leaders; regardless of their title, knowledge area, age, experience, or income level are master explainers.  They know how to tell a story that captivates and inspires.  A large part of what I love about working in new markets and hyper-growth companies are the people I get to meet, work with, and learn from.  Not all are masters, but the ones who are, are amazing to watch.

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