How good are you at explaining your ideas?
Do readers jump up to implement your advice?
Let’s be honest, writing a good explanation is tougher than it seems.
Explanations often turn out to be dry and uninspiring. We fail to engage our readers, and that’s when we fail to communicate our ideas, too.
So, what can you do to explain with clarity and zing?
The Zoom-In-Zoom-Out technique
You know it from photography, don’t you?
Zoom out, and you display the big picture. Zoom in, and you show details.
Writing works the same.
The best writing combines satellite-style zooming out with telephoto-like zooming in.
When zooming in, you see the mother lion licking her young; you see the bee gathering honey from a clover; you see the withering petals of a tulip. You see one specific situation—one flower, one person or one animal doing one specific thing.
Satellite photography is the complete opposite. Instead of tiny details, you see patterns. You see the colorful fields with millions of tulips in the Netherlands. You see how the green countryside has turned brown after weeks of heatwave. You see sprawling suburbs surrounding the skyscrapers in downtown Houston.
When you zoom in, you might see one person at the top floor of that skyscraper flossing their teeth. But in your satellite picture, that one person becomes as small as just one pixel—you can’t see her.
In photography, you have all sorts of lenses and you create pictures with different levels of zoom. But in writing, you alternate mostly between the extremes:
- Captivate readers by using the telephoto lens—tell the story of one person in one specific situation
- Describe the satellite image to explain the wider picture, the trends, the lessons, the statistics
- As much as possible, skip the half-zoomed scenes
The Zoom-In-Zoom-Out technique helps you explain anything to anyone; it helps you captivate readers, even with the most boring topics.
Shall I show you?
How the masters of explanation use this technique
Chip and Dan Heath apply the zoom-in-zoom-out technique in all their books to educate business readers.
Below follows an example from their book “The Power of Moments.” The story shows how important praise is, and it starts when a student, called Sloop, has been told to mouth words because her voice doesn’t blend with the rest of the choir. Then another teacher asks her to stay after practice:
Sloop was hesitant at first but eventually lowered her guard. She said, “We sang scale after scale, song after song, harmonizing and improving, until we were hoarse.”
Then the teacher took Sloop’s face in her hands and looked her in the eyes and said: “You have a distinctive, expressive, and beautiful voice. You could have been the love child of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.”
As she left the room that day, she felt as if she’d shed a ton of weight. “I was on top of the world,” she said. Then she went to the library to find out who Joan Baez was.
Sensory details—the singing of scale after scale and becoming hoarse; and how the teacher took her face in her hands—make this scene come alive. The authors have truly zoomed in. As readers, we can picture the scene.
And once a story has captured readers, the authors zoom out to share the big picture:
The importance of recognition to employees in inarguable. But here’s the problem: While recognition is a universal expectation, it’s not a universal practice.
(…) “More than 80 per cent of supervisors claim they frequently express appreciation to their subordinates, while less than 20 per cent of the employees report that their supervisors express appreciation more than occasionally.” Call it the recognition gap.
Zoomed-out statements—facts, figures, trends and big pictures—only become powerful because we’ve read the zoomed-in stories first.
Facts give stories substance. Stories give facts meaning. Substance and meaning are two of the most powerful factors in any explanation.
~ Lee LeFever (From: The Art of Explanation)
Another example of the zoom-in-zoom-out technique
“The Year of Magical Thinking” is a memoir by Joan Didion, in which she describes her journey of grieving for her husband.
But she doesn’t tell only her own story, she also comments on theories around loss and grieving. For instance:
From Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care, compiled in 1984 by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, I learned for example that the most frequent immediate responses to death were shock, numbness, and a sense of disbelief: “Subjectively, survivors may feel like they are wrapped in a cocoon or blanket; to others, they may look as though they are holding up well. Because the reality of death has not yet penetrated awareness, survivors can appear to be quite accepting of the loss.”
The statement above about bereavement is abstract, and Didion paints a clear picture with the details of her own grieving process:
I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.
As a blogger, sharing your personal experiences helps you bond with your readers. It turns you into a real human being rather than an abstract writer.
And when you connect your own experience to the wider picture, you establish your authority, too. You help readers see how your lessons apply to themselves.
How to explain better
Readers respond to vivid imagery, because it helps them imagine and experience your story.
So, whenever you want to share an abstract lesson or explain a trend, share a specific story and use vivid details to captivate and inspire readers.
You can use this technique for any type of writing:
- In a case study, explain the key benefits of your service by relating how it worked for one specific client
- In a blog post, teach a lesson by giving a specific example
- In journalism, weave sociological trends with the stories of how it affects specific families
- In a memoir, tell your personal story and relate it to a bigger lesson
- In a historical novel, tell the story of your protagonist to open a doorway to a historical era
The foundation of explanatory writing is simple: Zoom in. Zoom out.
PS Thank you to Amy Peacock for inspiring this blog post.
Books mentioned in this post:
- In “The Power of Moments,” Chip and Dan Heath explain how we can create extraordinary moments to inspire and change the lives of our clients, employees or students (highly recommended)
- In “The Art of Explanation,” Lee Lefever explains how can make our ideas, products and services easier to understand (recommended)
- “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion is a powerful memoir about grieving (recommended)
Further reading on good explanations:
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