Wednesday, August 24, 2005

If you can't explain something clearly...

... then I tend to assume you don't really understand it.

I have found again-and-again that when I can't find a straightforward, clear way to explain something, it means that I don't fully understand the concept myself. I experienced this a few days ago when replying to a colleague's request for information about a particular feature in a new product we're working on.

I started to write a reply, only to find myself writing longer and longer sentences, with parentheses inside parentheses and qualifications, exclusions and special cases galore.

I stepped back and realised that my problem was that I couldn't articulate - even to myself - what the core purpose of the function was. I was able to explain how to use it. I was able to describe when and where it would and wouldn't work but I couldn't say what it was for. That is: I couldn't tell a story to explain why it was even put there in the first place. What was going through the architect's mind? What problem were they trying to solve?

Once I did this thought experiment, I rapidly realised what it must be for... a bit of research and a couple of Sametimes later and I was done. I had a crisp explanation that told a good story and which made sense.


I was thinking about this last night when I thought: "How do I explain my job?" I currently have two 'stories' for my job: the one I tell non-IT people (family, friends, etc) and the one I tell IT people. The first one explains what an IT consultant does in a general sense. The second story assumes this knowledge and concentrates on what differentiates my job from other consulting roles.

I realised that neither of them was satisfactory and resolved to use the pages of this journal to rectify the problem.

Accordingly, I have set myself the task of crisply describing what it is, exactly, that I do... in a way that is accurate, understandable and interesting. I don't promise to be quick but I will get there...

5 comments:

Ben said...

ah that ones easy ... after many failed attempts to explain what i actually *do* ... (admittedly normally made during party or pub conversation after a few too many vodkas):

"I make computers talk to each other"

Job done.

Richard Brown said...

That's a good description for laypeople I guess.... until they ask how this differs to "doing the internet" or some other such questions ...

AndyP said...

I'm convinced this is slander against me. I've never been able to explain anything clearly, and you know it! Now how do I sue...

Richard Brown said...

I guess I should have said that confidence and a loud voice also help. They can take you a long way :-p

Chris H said...

Try explaining it to a woman. Now thats a challenge!!!