The ideal explainer

Tristan Harris of Apture asked me an interesting question yesterday: what makes a good explainer?

I was tucking into a roasted wild mushroom and Gruyere sandwich at the time, at the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, just around the corner from the Apture offices in San Francisco. The sandwich was delicious, but Tristan's question halted my jaws for a moment and set me ruminating.

My first response was to say that there are three key elements to a good explainer:

  1. Simplicity,
  2. Brevity, and
  3. Analogy.

Keep it simple, so everyone can follow along; keep it short, so it's not a chore to follow; and use analogy, so that you can relate the thing you're trying to explain to something the audience is already familiar with. This will both make the explanation easier to understand, and fix it in the people's minds.

But then I thought some more about it, and I'm not sure I was entirely right. That description may be right for me in some cases, but some of the best explainers out there are neither short, nor do they use analogy. This American Life/Planet Money's The Giant Pool of Money, for example, or The New York Times' Flipped.

It's a pretty complex question. I guess different people require different things from an explainer, depending on their depth of knowledge of the subject and the context. But I wonder if there are certain guidelines that we could draw up, to make creating explainers easier. I'l have to think about that.

Reposted from: Paddy Hirsch's The Whiteboard]()

About the author

Paddy Hirsch is a Contributing Editor at Marketplace and the creator and host of the Marketplace Whiteboard. Follow Paddy on Twitter @paddyhirsch and on Facebook at


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