How researchers get heard

The Superpower of Explanation

I don’t think we can kill explanation — but we’re trying our best to make everyone pay $100 a year for it on Substack. Polarization and social media are fueled by memes, and you don’t explain a meme. You deploy it, like a cherry bomb.

We used to tell researchers to explain their work as if they were talking to a fourth grader, or their mother, or their grandmother (never their father or grandfather, of course). Now explanation itself has become suspect. From one angle, it’s too authoritative; it asserts power and preempts dialog. From another angle: It’s a drag on our otherwise high-octane startup-ish conversations. (A colleague recently shared a thread purporting to demystify NFTs and explain why their global dominance was inevitable. We then had the slightly unnerving experience of disagreeing deeply about whether it was a critique or an endorsement of that scenario. Here, you try.)

Some researchers still explain things very well. Emily Oster, Zeynep Tufekci, Tressie McMillan Cottom and Heather Cox Richardson come to mind: Each has a distinctive writing style, which explanation (usually the laborious Valley of Death in the story or talk) actually accentuates. The deeper they go into something and the farther they drive you to the intended destination, the more interesting they get and the more themselves they become. These are the researchers that, even if you don’t know anything about what they’re talking about when they begin talking, you’ll know what you need to know when they stop. For Oster, Tufecki, McMillan Cottom and Richardson, explanation is a value. And each has created community around their insistence on explaining.

Other researchers are going 200 miles an hour and can hardly be bothered to use their turn signals, much less pull over and give you directions. Tyler Cowen is a good example. If you get what he’s talking about, great; if you don’t, here’s a lexicon of Cowenisms and the feeling of being about 15 years too late to a very nerdy party. Much of the content put out around rationalism and crypto throws up similarly daunting barriers to entry, intentionally or not. The only pathway in is the pathway you hack. Extended disorientation seems to be part of the initiation ritual.

Let me surprise you here: One approach is automatically not better than the other, more justifiable than the other. As the communications cliche goes, which one you choose to take should depend on goals and context. As another communications cliche goes, “everyone” is not an audience. If you’re not starting a podcast because there are already too many podcasts, that’s backwards. Start with the 40-50 people you need to influence and the explanations and signals they need to feel like they belong. Thicken that network first, and then build on it as a bonus.

All things being equal, though, the power to explain is a superpower because it is at heart the power to narrate well. We hear all about clarity (and its discontents), but narration — navigation in words, the ability to get us from A to B without capsizing or declaring mutiny — is a rare core skill that you can deploy in nearly any engagement setting, from a zoning meeting to a Zoom call. There is a reason why Cowen’s Bloomberg columns — while they have provocative premises — are often unsatisfying as arguments. If his blog is where he practices the most, he’s using it to vogue, not to explain.

Takeaway: Yes, there are millions of books on narration. Instead, study the great explainers like Oster, Tufekci, McMillan Cottom and Richardson. Outline how they get you from A to B efficiently and pleasurably. Track how their generosity and sense of audience work together — what they explain, what they don’t, and what that says about that sense of audience. Then outline your own argument and show it to a few in your intended audience to find out where the gaps are (a bit of red team testing). Or get time with a professional editor. You want this arrow in your quiver.