You’ve Got Some Explaining To Do


Do you get blank looks when you tell people what you do?

I know I do.

Many people aren’t familiar with SEO, so it can be difficult to put the role of SEO into a context lay people can understand. Search marketing is complex, so sometimes it can be a struggle to get across all the benefits we offer in a way people can easily remember.

Whilst explaining is something we all do, there are techniques we can use to improve the clarity of our explanations, and to make our explanations more memorable. So, if you need to give a speech, write a proposal, a white paper, a presentation or a blog post,  here are a few ideas on constructing good explanations.

What Makes For A Good Explanation?

An explanation makes facts understandable to an audience. However, an explanation isn’t just a list of facts. Without context, facts can be difficult to comprehend and remember.

All good explanations have one common result: they make the audience feel smarter.

There are three steps to creating a good explanation: planning, crafting the message, and verification. We determine what we want to communicate, we create our message, and then we verify the message is received and understood.


Planning involves identifying the audience. It is our audience who decide if an explanation is clear.

A lot of business and particularly academic communication can be dense, wordy and impenetrable. If you, as the audience, don’t understand the speaker’s message, then who is at fault?

In many cases, it’s the speaker.

They might make themselves appear clever, and feel good about themselves, but if we don’t understand their explanations, then they have failed to communicate. The aim should be to make the audience, not ourselves, feel smarter.

Put yourself in their shoes. What questions will they likely have? If they asked “why” about every single point you make, does your explanation include the answers?

Environment & Constraints

Consider their environment in which your message will be received.

Are your audience industry people at a conference, bound to their chairs for the duration? Is your audience  clicking through links and pages on the web hunting for something specific?

The environment affects how the explanation is crafted and delivered. The environment likely imposes certain constraints that also affects the message. Your talk might be limited to twenty minutes, or your document limited to so many words. Constraints can lead to more memorable stories by forcing the writer to focus.

Check out this start to a talk by Richard St John:

This is really a two hour presentation I give to high school students, cut down to three minutes. And it all started one day on a plane, on my way to TED, seven years ago. And in the seat next to me was a high school student, a teenager, and she came from a really poor family. And she wanted to make something of her life, and she asked me a simple little question. She said, “What leads to success?” And I felt really badly, because I couldn’t give her a good answer. So I get off the plane, and I come to TED. And I think, jeez, I’m in the middle of a room of successful people! So why don’t I ask them what helped them succeed, and pass it on to kids?


If he’d had more time, perhaps he would have gone into a lot more detail. But would it have been as punchy?

Many Audiences

Audiences always vary in terms of existing knowledge.

Unless you’re talking one-on-one, there will be some experts who have heard it all before, some people who are new to it all, and the rest falling on a continuum somewhere in between. It can be difficult to please everyone in such circumstances, so be clear what you goal is – keep the end in mind, and work backwards – then identify the most significant audience i.e. the people who must understand your message in order for you to fulfill your goal.

If your goal is to enlighten newcomers about the benefits of SEO, then you would craft your explanation to appeal to them, and spend less time talking to the advanced people. If you need to talk to both groups, then you’ll obviously need to bring the beginners up to speed first. Those with advanced knowledge don’t tend to mind you going over old ground, so long as you signal that is what you are doing, and there will be a payoff for them later.

Start at the end. What is the one thing you want people to do after they hear or read your communication?

Crafting The Message

1. The Five W’s

Journalists are taught to cover five questions when information gathering and researching:

  • who?
  • what?
  • when?
  • where?
  • why?

Known as the “Five Ws”, this is a good strategy for your topic research phase, as it helps us get the “full story”. Each question should have a factual answer.

Focus on “why”. Start with the “why”. Once people understand why you’re doing something, they’ll more readily listen to the rest.

“People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.

2. Create A Catchphrase

No doubt you remember the phrase “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”.

In “How To Deliver A TED Talk”, Jeremy Donovan talks about what makes for a great catchphrase. They are rhythmic. They often have internal rhyme (“fit/acquit”).

“When you construct a two part catchphrase, make the second part positive and sharply contrasting with the first part…”You must acquit if the glove doesn’t fit” simply does not have the same ompf”.

Catch-phrases bury themselves in the mind, and stay there. “Don’t be evil” is a rather unfortunate example, of course 😉

Use with caution.

3. Write – Or Speak – Using Plain Language

Plain language (also called Plain English) is, as the name suggests, is about using simple words and phrases. In short, don’t use ten words when one will do! President Obama signed Plain Writing into law in 2010, in the form of the Plain Writing Act . The aim was to improve the effectiveness of communication between Federal agencies and the public.

This is the polar opposite of the type of writing many Universities teach. It took me years to get out of the painful habit of using the convoluted dense, academic writing that I’d learned at University. Whilst academic writing has it’s place, this mode tends to be too wordy, time consuming and confusing outside the world of academia.

This is not a slight on the audience’s intelligence. Academic writing simply isn’t a style that is geared to modern day life for most people. Your audience aren’t stupid, but they are likely to be time constrained and so must divide their attention between a multitude of competing messages. This is easier to do if your message is readily understandable. The phrase “don’t make me think” applies to both usability and language.

Whilst there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to good communication, try these general guidelines:

  • Use active voice, rather than passive voice. Active voice is where the subject performs the action denoted by the verb. For example, “the fox jumped over the lazy dog”, not “the lazy dog was jumped over by the fox”.
  • Use personal pronouns: I, we and you.
  • Be clear and concise. Sentences and paragraphs are often improved by severe trimming!
  • Avoid slang and cliche. It can be ambiguous.
  • Match the tone to your audience i.e. formal/informal
  • Write short sentences. Present one idea per sentence.
  • Use titles and subtitles that are informative or summarize the text.
  • Cut out information that is not essential to your goal
  • Use graphics, charts, and pictures to reinforce facts and points
  • If you use technical terms or acronyms, explain them, unless your entire audience is familiar with them

4. Relate New Ideas To Something Your Audience Already Knows Well

Many of the most successful applications on the internet were related to something people already did, and that they knew well.

Email is like writing and sending a letter. A search engine is like using a library catalog. Facebook is like a yearbook. YouTube is like a home video player on your computer.

When explaining something new or difficult, try and liken it to something your audience already understands. Danny Sullivan has a great explanation of the benefit of SEO for people who don’t get the benefit of SEO:

“Yes, search is magical. For years, I’ve described search as a “reverse broadcast system.” In a broadcast system, advertisers spend lots of money to reach a mass audience, hoping to build desire for a product or service. But most of the audience is not interested in their pitches. Search is the reverse. Each search is an expressed desire, something that someone at a particular time actually wants. Advertisers can tune in to the “desire-cast” that’s going on”.

How do you explain SEO? Feel free to add your explanations to the comments 🙂

5. Start With A Fact On Which Everyone Can Agree

A common sales technique is to get the prospect to answer “yes” to questions. The interaction feels more positive, and the prospect is more likely to want to answer yes to further questions, which may involve a sale.

By stating a fact on which everyone can agree – such as “it’s difficult for lay people to understand what an SEO does” – you build empathy. People will feel what you’re saying is relevant to them. You can then ease them into the change you want them to accept.

6. Provide Context

There’s an old joke about Microsoft.

A balloon was flying high above Seattle, but the pilot was lost. The pilot slowly drifted over a building, drew a handwritten sign, and held it up. The pilot’s sign read “WHERE AM I?” in large letters. People in the building quickly responded to the pilot, drew a large sign and held it in a building window. Their sign read: “YOU ARE IN A BALLOON!” The pilot smiled, waved, looked at his map, determined the course to steer to his destination, and landed safely. After the pilot landed, the passenger asked the pilot how the sign helped determine their position. The pilot responded “I knew that had to be the Microsoft building because the response they gave me was technically correct, but completely useless.

Context is the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

Try starting with a high level view. The 50,000 foot view. I often find it’s a great way to set the context for an explanation by explicitly stating “So, here’s the 50,000ft view….”. People then expect to hear the broad context.  Then drill down to specifics.

For example, if we’re talking about SEO, the 50,000 foot view might be “how do we make sure the relevant audience hears your message?”. SEO is a subset of that idea, but readily understood within that broad context.

7. Tell A Story

Meet Carol.

Carol has a presentation to make tomorrow, but she hasn’t yet started. She stares at the blinking cursor. She just can’t think of a good way to start!

Carol emails her friend, Dave, and asks for a few tips. Dave suggested that Carol just start writing in a stream of consciousness, even if what she was writing seemed like gibberish. He told Carol this would help her separate the writing side of her brain from the editing side. Her internal editor was restricting her.

Carol tried the technique, and found she filled up five pages quickly. She went back and edited what she had written down to two pages of useful material.

If you’re ever stuck staring at a blank page, give the stream of consciousness approach a try.

A basic story, but it works because it’s easily understood. Stories help make facts more memorable.

Here’s how to structure a story:

  • Character has a problem. Character feels pain.
  • Character discovers a solution to her pain and tries it out.
  • As a result of trying the solution, character overcomes pain.
  • Bring the audience into the story

Another way to use stories is to contrast how people do things now, with how they could be done better. For example, if the customer is using print, radio or tv advertising, then the pain might be the difficulty in tracking response. How do they know which advertising is most effective? A cure for the pain might be to use internet advertising, where they can track actual visitor response and link this data back to their marketing campaign.


Speakers often ask people to raise their hands if they know about certain things. This helps them gauge where to pitch. It also helps them get to know their audience better.

Seeking feedback helps ensure your message understood and remembered. There’s nothing much to say about verification other than to make sure you roll feedback it into your strategy. Ask questions, test your messages out on friends, enable comments, directly ask people what they think.

It’s the only true way to know if your explanation worked.

If you have more ideas on how to make explanations clear and memorable, please add them to the comments 🙂


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