The book's introduction is below.
Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 [PDF]
For most of my life (especially in school), I struggled to grasp some of the subjects I was supposed to be learning. Although I grasped subjects such as science and history fairly easily, topics such as math and accounting consistently proved to be challenging. In my mind, these subjects were made up of thousands of rules that I had to memorize to solve the associated problems. The ideas seemed to float around in my head without any foundation or place.
As so many students who struggle do, I felt inadequate at the time. as if my brain was not wired for solving these problems. I became a person who said "I'm not good at math" and avoided anything related to it. The notion of trying to memorize rule after rule frustrated me, and I wondered how others did it with such apparent ease. Were they simply more skilled at memorization? What was I missing?
At the same time, however, I knew I was a capable student. Along with science and history, writing came easily to me. But as much as I wanted math and subjects like it to work for me, it seemed like the light bulb never went on.
However, I learned to work with this apparent limitation throughout my years of education. I eventually earned a graduate degree in health administration and moved to Seattle, where I currently live. It was during this phase of my career that I identified the underlying cause of my struggle with subjects like math and started to see how the same problem affected others. When I looked back, it seemed like there were some people in my classes who could look at a set of rules or details and naturally see the big picture—in other words, the why. They seemed to be able to understand math and accounting at a higher level, whereas students like me were getting so mired in trying to memorize the how that the why faded into the background. We could still pass tests and make good grades, but we did it by memorizing facts, not by developing a true understanding of the material.
The more I thought about this, the clearer the solution became. My learning style meant that I needed a way to approach new ideas in a unique way. I needed to see the big picture first, the foundation of the details. Therefore, to understand accounting, I needed to understand business basics first. To understand math, I needed to understand the reasoning behind it first. I needed to see the forest before the trees.
Soon enough I realized what was missing: I needed better explanations. My learning style demanded that I see the why before the how. This revelation became a part of my communication style. I became a student of communication and watched my friends and peers explain ideas. I began to recognize how people got confused or lost confidence in their ability to understand something completely. This experience made a deep impression on me.
But it was not until I got involved in the technology industry in 1998 that this realization became a part of my work. I was hired as a data analyst at a healthcare software company in Bellevue, Washington. Within two years I met my wife and business partner, Sachi, and I developed a strong passion for the idea that customers should be able to communicate and get support using message boards on the company website. What is now known as social media was called online communities in 1999, and I wanted to be the online community manager.
As you might imagine, this was not an easy sell inside the company. Most of my colleagues had never considered the potential of an online community and were naturally risk-averse. But I had a plan: I would explain my way into creating this program. So I set up meetings with product managers and created materials that supported my ideas. I educated my colleagues in the way I had wanted to be educated throughout my life.
I provided a foundation by building context and discussing big ideas—the forest. I helped them feel confident that they fully understood what I wanted to do before talking about any details—the trees. I planned my explanations and told stories that highlighted how this online community had the potential to be a rich source of customer information. It could even become an early warning system for product teams.
I asked them to imagine a world in which customers could solve each other's problems. I explained the idea to executives and connected it to the company's strategy and goals. Slowly but surely, the stakeholders saw the potential, and most became advocates.
Soon enough I was the online community manager—a job I held until 2003, when I left to found Common Craft. I launched it as an online community consulting company aimed at helping organizations understand and implement their own online communities. My job as an explainer was just beginning.
My role as a consultant was to influence my clients and help them see and understand new opportunities. I soon realized my clients were experiencing difficulties very similar to those I experienced when attempting to understand certain subjects in school. Their view of social media was like my view of accounting: they knew the words and had memorized the features of various tools, but they had no foundation. They were stuck with countless trees, but no forest, and like me, they could not fully apply what they were learning.
This gave me an idea.
I decided to take subjects such as wikis and RSS feeds—topics that had proved challenging for my clients to grasp—and write my own explanations using the tagline "in plain English." The idea was to help solve a problem for my clients and to create something interesting for the Common Craft blog. This was the first time I realized that my unique perspective on explanation could be a useful business tool. I had developed the ability to put myself in other people's shoes and create media that helped them feel confident. They loved reading the blog posts and I enjoyed writing them, but it would be a few years before they would be called into action.
At around the same time, I put my explanation skills to the test. A few companies sponsored what they called "The Perfect Corporate Weblog Pitch Contest." The idea was to explain the value of corporate weblogs in the time it takes to ride an elevator (under 160 words). When I saw this contest, I thought to myself, "Man, I am all over this!" It was true. My award-winning pitch read as follows:
First, think about the value of the Wall Street Journal to business leaders. The value it provides is context—the Journal allows readers to see themselves in the context of the financial world each day, which enables more informed decision making.
With this in mind, think about your company as a microcosm of the financial world. Can your employees see themselves in the context of the whole company? Would more informed decisions be made if employees and leaders had access to internal news sources? Weblogs serve this need. By making internal websites simple to update, weblogs allow individuals and teams to maintain online journals that chronicle projects inside the company. These professional journals make it easy to produce and access internal news, providing context to the company—context that can profoundly affect decision making. In this way, weblogs allow employees and leaders to make more informed decisions through increasing their awareness of internal news and events.
My goal was to convey the value of weblogs in a way that would appeal to the judges; however, I learned something else from this experience. For the first time, I felt that explanation was not simply a tactic or way of approaching communication. It was something that excited and motivated me. I specifically remember my heart beating rapidly when I drafted the corporate weblog pitch. It made me feel like I had found my calling, like I was born to make ideas easier for others to understand in the form of explanations.
I came to realize over the next few years that the consulting clients with whom I worked were not unique in their thoughts about technology. The general public also struggled to see the value of these new online products and tools. Most people were constantly caught up in the features and details. They wanted to stay ahead of the curve but were cautious about wasting time on a product they did not fully understand.
The tragedy from my perspective was that the tools were often free, easy to use, and could have a positive impact on people's lives. However, people weren't adopting them because of how they were explained. The technologists were doing the explaining, and doing it poorly.
We came to call this an explanation problem, which is when the biggest barrier to adoption is not design, features, or benefits but communication. And the problem was epidemic. Thousands of life changing tools and ideas were not being used because they lacked clear explanations of their value.
When Sachi joined me at Common Craft in 2006, we set out to solve this problem. It was the year YouTube went mainstream; suddenly, anyone could easily publish videos to the Web. We started to experiment and look for ways to make video part of Common Craft. After feeling awkward trying to be the guy standing in front of a whiteboard, Sachi had the idea to point a camera straight down onto a whiteboard and use hands, markers, and paper cut-outs to tell a story.
Common Craft videos were born in 2007, and we created our first video based on a blog post for my clients from years before, entitled "RSS in Plain English". We shot the video in our basement with no expectations or video production skills, and it showed. We lit the whiteboard with the strongest portable lights we had: bedroom lamps. And for the narration, I spoke directly into the microphone on the camera. As it turned out, this three-minute video changed our lives.
We posted it on YouTube in April, and it became a viral hit. It was viewed tens of thousands of times the first day and we received a torrent of emails, comments, and blog posts about our work. People contacted us and encouraged us to make more videos. It was one of the most exciting days of my life. Our explanation was a hit because it solved the RSS explanation problem and invited people to use it by helping them see it from a new, more understandable perspective.
The next question became: can we do it again? We published our second video about a month later, which was also based on a previous blog post. This one was called "Wikis in Plain English", and was received in a similar way. People seemed to love our videos and want more.
By the end of the summer of 2007, we had published four more videos and started making custom videos for products and services. In August of 2007, we decided that Common Craft would become a video production company that specialized in video explanations. We redesigned our website, and our tagline became "Our Product Is Explanation." One of our first custom videos, called "Google Docs in Plain English," hit the web that fall. We were on our way.
Since that time, people around the world have come to know Common Craft for our explanation skills. We have made more than 100 video explanations in the same format as the first video on RSS—what is now known as Common Craft Style. Our videos have been viewed more than 50 million times online and we have worked with companies such as LEGO, Intel, Google, Dropbox, and Microsoft to explain their products and services. Further, teachers and students are now creating their own video explanations in classrooms and calling them "Common Craft Style Videos." Perhaps no company is better known for video explanations than Common Craft.
Now more than ever, I am a believer in the power of explanation, and not just for product and service videos. I believe it is a skill that everyone can learn and improve upon, and one that is needed to help people grasp ideas in a useful and productive way. This book is designed to give everyone an opportunity to rethink how he or she explains ideas, and learn to package them into explanations that work.