Explaining Well

Have you ever given an explanation and the person receiving it didn’t seem to understand what you’re saying? A lot of us have. How do you overcome that situation? Let’s work this through.

Realize that you are the one to fix the situation.

One of the most valuable things I remember from US Air Force ROTC was that the person communicating the message was the one responsible for making sure it came across clearly. This assumes the listener/receiver wants to understand the message. However, if the message is unclear to the listener, there’s little the listener can do about it. The listener can ask questions to try and understand, but ultimately clarity must come from the one giving the message.

Therefore, if you’re the one giving the explanation, it’s up to you to ensure the message comes across clearly. It’s not the listener’s fault if it doesn’t and the listener is earnestly trying to understand.

You must make things plain.

The word ‘explanation’ comes from the idea of making plain, or making clear. – Thomas Swanson, Classical Philosophy for Homeschool Students

Mr. Swanson’s definition for explanation is the one that will help us the most if we’re looking to be understood. If we are explaining, we should try to make things clear. There are some steps to this:

Understand what you are explaining.

First, we must ensure we understand the explanation. I’ve been in the situation where I began to explain something and then realized I didn’t fully understand what it was I was explaining. Likely you’ve been there, too. Before beginning to explain something, ensure you understand it.

Consider the audience.

Second, we need to consider the audience. If I’m dealing with another IT security professional, there is jargon that I’ll use that is common in that career field. These special words often convey ideas that we understand the meaning of. For instance, when I say, “DDoS,” another security professional should know exactly what that means. When I’m talking to my daughter who is in elementary school, simply saying that will be meaningless.

Likewise, if I am talking to a fellow security professional about the Mane character in the My Little Pony card game, I probably will have to explain what My Little Pony is, what the concept behind the game is, etc. When it comes to my daughter, no such explanation is required. We can start right into why she has chosen the Mane character she has in her deck.

Employ KISS, both versions.

Finally, remember what you’re trying to accomplish: you’re trying to make something clear. Most folks don’t need the whole history of what happened. They don’t need to know the auxiliary details. If you’re like me, this kind of stuff fascinates you and you do want to know. Again, remember your audience. Most don’t. Therefore, employ the KISS method, just in two different ways. Not familiar with the KISS method or not familiar with the second way? Here they are:

  • Keep It Simple, Stupid
  • Keep It Short, Stupid

Therefore, keep the explanation as simple as possible. Also, keep it as short as possible. Explain the root issue and what caused it. If you’re audience wants further explanation, you will be asked for it.

A final note:

One final point: if you’re the type who likes to be wordy (guilty as charged), remember that writing an essay when a paragraph will do will cause some folks to not read your explanation. If you’re giving it verbally, they’ll tune it out. And you’ve just defeated your whole purpose.

When folks start liking something because it’s popular, we call that jumping on the bandwagon. Liking something simply because it’s popular is not a good thing to do. On the other hand, hating something because it is popular is not good, either. Both are the result of short-circuiting your reasoning skills.

How other people feel about something should not be a major factor in why you like or dislike something. Rather, decide for yourself whether or not something appeals to you. By rejecting the popular out of hand, you may be tossing out something that is beneficial to you. For instance, I’ve talking with a handful of folks that are completely against Inbox Zero. A couple of these have productivity methods that don’t fit with Inbox Zero. They’ve reasoned out that Inbox Zero doesn’t work for them. That’s fine. They aren’t rejecting the productivity method because it’s popular. It simply doesn’t work in their larger process. However, there are a couple that, without knowing much about Inbox Zero, have said they hated it. When asked for their reasons, it was simply about its popularity among some productivity workers. They’ve disconnected their reasoning. And they might be missing out as a result. 

If something (or someone) is popular, don’t let an emotional response to either (a) be part of the crowd or (b) rebel from the sheep cloud your judgment. Engage your brain and choose for yourself.

GoalkeeperWe didn’t have a goalkeeper. However, I had played first and second base in the previous three Little League seasons and had played catcher the second season. Therefore, I felt I could handle being our team’s goalkeeper. When no one else volunteered, I did. In our first scrimmage, I received a horrible wake-up call. My baseball skills transferred only marginally. I was a terrible goalkeeper.

I received an accurate assessment of my ability and skill as a goalkeeper because of that scrimmage. In the end, a few other kids who had goalkeeping experience stepped up and took the role that year. Knowing how bad I was, I spent a lot of time after practice and when we were doing drills learning how to be a goalkeeper. I spent the season playing defender, winning a starting spot. Something from my baseball playing did translate well: speed. That was also identified during that first scrimmage.

If you want to get better, you regularly need accurate assessment of where you are. There’s a lot of debate in the information technology (IT) space with regards to certification tests and in the educational system with respect to standardized tests. In short, these tests are helpful if used properly: to assess where a person is in regards to a particular set of skills. Assessment doesn’t just have to come from tests, however. Often times, those who are further along than you can assess you. For instance, I was getting continual feedback from the regular goalkeepers on my team. That’s how I learned what I needed to work on next in order to get all my skills over the bar.


Determine how you can accurately measure yourself in whatever it is you’re looking to improve. It may be a test. It may be an expert. Whatever it is, attempt to undergo that assessment as quickly as possible. Then use the results to build an action plan for improving yourself.

A few weeks ago I read a post by Sebastian Marshall about getting everything over the bar first. It was based on something he himself read.

It struck a chord with me because I was reminded of my days at The Citadel. The gist of his post is this quote:

You have to get all work over the bar — meaning, good enough quality given your requirements — before polishing anything in particular to perfection.

At The Citadel, a knob’s (freshman’s uniform) is expected to be perfect. That’s the standard. The duty shirt should be pressed and without wrinkle or stain. The nametag should be properly aligned, as should the “4″ signifying the class (4th classman) and the company letter for the company the knob belongs to. The duty trousers should also be pressed and without wrinkle or stain. The brass and the shoes should be extremely highly polished without any scratches or gouges. As you might guess, it takes a bit before knobs begin to reach this standard. What is typical is for the worst of the lot to be focused on. For instance, “Your shoes look like you shined them with Hershey bars!” And gradually, but quickly, a knob’s personal appearance is brought up to the standard.

What in your life isn’t over the bar? What’s below standard? Often times folks notice the things about us that are most deficient. We could be extremely good at something, but where we fall short is all that’s seen. Or, whatever it is that is below standard holds us back from our other goals. For instance, if you’re overweight, that saps at your overall health and energy levels. You could be excellent at something, but likely you can’t fully make use of it or demonstrate it because of the fact that your health isn’t over the bar.

Action: Carefully consider yourself. What in your life isn’t up to a reasonable standard? If necessary, ask trusted friends to help you identify what you need to work on. Then put together an action plan to attack those items and get them over the bar.

My schedule and my duties don’t permit me the luxury of a rigid schedule. Yet I want to be able to be efficient and maximize the amount of work I can accomplish in the time allocated. My reasoning for this is simple: if I don’t get the work done in the time allocated, in a lot of cases I’m going to have to spend more time working. This takes away from any personal time for me (needed to help with stress), with my family, with my church, etc.

Daily RiItuals: How Artists WorkIn reading through most of the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, I noted that most of the artists profiled had a strict schedule for their workdays. A lot of them worked primarily in the morning, usually getting up early to do so. However, regardless of when they worked or when they awoke, what was true of the majority of the artists was that iron-clad schedule. I can understand the need for this: it reduces the brain power to process the mundane.

What if you’re like me and you don’t have the option of that rigid schedule? As Sebastian Marshall points out, some highly productive folks have the ability to work anywhere. Sebastian talks about just getting some work done with the tools at hand, even if they aren’t ideal. I’d rather have the tools I need always at hand. This caused me to think, “What tools do I need to be able to work efficiently anywhere?” Some things off of the top of my head:

  • laptop or tablet
  • journal
  • pens or pencils
  • smartphone (if I don’t have Wi-Fi)
  • Backpack to carry my tools

I’ve wandered around this question in the past, but I’ve never given serious thought to it. I’d like to basically come up with “an office in a backpack.” If you’ve tackled this question before, what are some of the tools you find essential to work anywhere?

For 2013, I set a goal to read more for pleasure. This meant reading a lot more fiction. I read a lot every day due to work. However, these tend to be technical articles or blog posts. I also set a goal to read more of the top rated science fiction novels that have been written. Basically, I hit several lists and picked books to explore.

Here’s my list, with a bit of arbitrary groupings. Links are to Amazon in case any catch your fancy.

The Sword of Truth Series

On a recommendation from a friend, I delved into the first four books of the Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind. They are excellent novels that I enjoyed greatly. The series continues and I hope to read more in 2014.

The Hunger Games Series

I read the series and then happened on the Japanese movie Battle Royale and was struck with the similarities. I can see why some folks hated this series at the end: it doesn’t have that Hollywood happy ending. However, given the events during the course of the series, I certainly expected how things turned out.

The Saxon Chronicles

I love Bernard Cornwell as an author. I had read The Last Kingdom during 2012 and wanted to get closer to completing the books he has written thus far in this series.

Richard Sharpe’s Adventure Series

Another Bernard Cornwell series, this one follows Richard Sharpe through the Napoleonic War. I happened upon 12 books at a used book store, recognized the author, and grabbed the books. It was a great investment. However, I found it at the end of the year, so I’ve not had time to get through the books I have. The series wasn’t written chronologically, and I’m going based on the Penguin Books numbering. If you want to read them chronologically, check at Mr. Cornwell’s site.

The Earthsea Cycle

The first book began as an experiment by Ursula K. Le Guin to see if she could write for the youth age group. Needless to say, she was successful. Again, another series I have started and look forward to reading more of.

Chronicles of The Black Company

Glenn Cook was on a lot of science fiction/fantasy lists for his Black Company series. The first two books are definitely grim and gritty. I’ll likely be completing the series in 2014.

The Dresden Files

I originally ran across the SyFy channel series on Netflix and it hooked my interest. Knowing the books are usually better (and different) from their screen adaptations, I began reading Jim Butcher’s series.

The Forever Series

There are three books in the series by Joe Haldeman, however, the second one is set in the universe of the other two but isn’t directly connected. I really enjoyed The Forever War. I thought the way Mr. Haldeman ended Forever Peace was a bit contrived.

Other Fantasy/Science Fiction Books

These are in no particular order. Some are part of a series (The White Dragon and Stormdancer, for instance), however, I only read one book of that series in 2013. Many came from those top lists.

Other Fiction Books

I read (or re-read) some of these because they are considered classics. Others just struck my fancy or were recommended by a friend or family member.

Personal Development Books

Given that I follow a lot of blogs, I didn’t do as much reading in this area in 2013.

Faith Books

Technical Books

I received this one for review. It’s an excellent book if you administer Microsoft SQL Server.

In general, making one or more New Year’s resolutions proves to be a waste of time and effort. One study suggests that only 8% of people succeed in their New Year’s resolutions. Unless you know from past history you’re part of that eight percent, don’t do it. Make better use of your time.

Think About and Set SMART Goals

Instead of making some off the cuff resolutions that you’re not likely to follow through on, take the next week before the New Year to think and plan. What is it that you’re wanting to accomplish in 2014? When developing these goals, ensure they are SMART.

Figure Out Your Next Steps

One of the reasons New Year’s resolutions fails is that there is no consideration of how to get started. With each goal, know what you need to do to start moving forward on those goals. The more you can develop a plan for your goals, the better you’ll be at achieving the goal. 

Write It All Down

There are plenty of studies that show if you write down your goals, you’re more likely to accomplish them. One study shows that if you can flesh out those goals, you’ll have confidence and enthusiasm about those goals. Attitude makes a big difference and that positive “vibe” from writing things down may mean the difference between success and failure.


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