What Makes a Good Explanation?

Albert Einstein advised, “Everything should be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.”

Sound advice for advocates, but easier said than done.  Cultural Logic’s approach both recognizes qualities that make explanations “easier to think,” and provides ways to judge that an explanation is working.  Here are several.

Explanations that work tend to be:

Concrete: They put the idea in visual or kinetic, rather than abstract terms. (Metaphors and analogies help.)

Causal: One of the most effective ways of getting to “aha!” is to give people a new sense of how cause leads to effect. This usually involves providing a new middle term.

At the “everyday action” level: The mind has evolved to most naturally handle a particular scale of time and distance – not molecular, not galactic, for instance. Explanations that work are grounded in this level of experience.

An explanation is working when:

It’s “sticky”: People remember it, think about it, and can repeat it, often even days or weeks later.

It’s easily communicated: People can explain it to each other. (How else can an explanation become “common sense”?)

It guides thinking in new and better directions: It leads to new kinds of reasoning, which are not only more constructive and accurate, but more engaging.