Friday, May 06, 2005

Quick Explanations

What makes a good quick explanation?

I can think of several possible criteria. The most obvious are that it should be quick and it should explain something. A lecture is, to most people, not quick; and a sound bite is, as often as not, not very explanatory. Political speeches, marketing pitches, and other such beasts are neither quick nor explanatory,

It's easy to measure the time someone talks, or the amount of paper someone uses, to say something. It's much harder to measure the explanatory quality of what is said. In one of Asimov's Foundation books, an ambassador visits the Foundation planet for a week or two, and everything he says is recorded. Afterward an analysis is done, and it's revealed that once the pleasantries, diversions, and self-contradictory things he said are stripped away, the only information is We are going to attack soon. It made a good story point, but I have a hard time imagining how such an analysis could be made rigorous. Still, some sentences clearly convey more information than others. As one wit advised technical writers the number of words you use divided by the number of ideas should not tend toward infinity.

I think one hallmark of a good quick explanation is concreteness. Of course, the extent to which an idea invokes a concrete mental picture varies depending on the person. Still, if I speak of waves in a pond, most people will be able to imagine what I mean, based on their own experiences. In contrast, the only image (literally meant) that patriotic duty brings to my mind involves a tiny American flag. Presumably if someone wants to explain why I should do something and appeals to my patriotic duty, they would rather not have me think of a tiny American flag on a plastic stick with a little Made in Taiwan sticker on it. Patriotic duty is the stuff of good propaganda, but not good explanation.