The Art of Explanation Explained

Every product has a story, the story of why it’s the best choice for the job. That story is most difficult to tell when it involves new or advanced technology, because often a wealth of new information has to be conveyed in order to make the case. But those are the cases where explanation is most crucial.

We recently got word that a professor of Engineering requested permission to use an article we wrote in his course. The article concerned Hydrogen Assisted Stress Corrosion Cracking – a serious and dangerous problem that most people don’t know they have – and fasteners that resist it. (The Construction Specifier, Aug. 2008, page 64) Explaining HASCC was especially tricky, because it is a byproduct of another slightly better-known process, galvanic corrosion, but only occurs under certain circumstances and only affects certain types of fasteners. There was a great deal of ‘informational foundation’ to be laid before the real subject could be discussed.

When approaching the most complex stories, we apply a simple rule:

You can explain anything to anybody
if you can figure out what they don’t know.

How far back into basics do you need to go for a specific audience? What knowledge can you safely assume? Building an explanation becomes a bit like constructing a building, and you start by examining the soil to determine what foundation you have to lay.

It is worth the effort, too. The more unfamiliar or novel a technology, the more it will benefit from being explained, demystified. One of the key factors in getting products specified or purchased by contractors is confidence in the product. Understanding how something works enhances confidence in it.

Once you know where to start explaining, you just build the informational blocks. I once explained quantum physics to a six-year-old, but I spent the first half of the explanation figuring out what he knew and didn’t know.

In the case of HASCC, we had to explain galvanic corrosion, fastener fabrication, case hardening, hydrogen embrittlement, and HASCC before we could get to the solution to the problem that was the subject of the article. It seemed like a very long journey. We were keenly aware that holding our audience meant keeping all the pieces tied together as we went along, and keeping alive the reader’s hope that we would reach the goal.

Apparently we succeeded. Shortly after the article was published, we got the aforementioned request from a professor of engineering at Florida International University. He said it was the best explanation of galvanic corrosion that he’d come across. That’s our idea of “news you can use.”