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A Checklist for explanatory articles

Today I’m just going to quote someone else, because I thought it was really good. The BBC journalist Ros Atkins has written a book called The Art of Explanation, and posted this advice from it online. He says: “I find these 10 questions help to give me the best chance of communicating well. They’re in (the book) along with practical advice on a range of different types of written and verbal communication, and the stories behind the advice.” The list is worth keeping for reference.

10 attributes that I am looking for in an explanation – and the 10 questions that help to deliver them each time.

1. Simplicity.

  • Is this the simplest way that I can say this? If what we say is in its simplest form, it’s going to be easier to take in.

2. Essential detail.

  • What detail is essential to this explanation? Every excess piece information that we include is asking more of the person that we’re communicating with.

3. Complexity.

  • Are there elements of this subject that I don’t understand? We need to understand the subject fully ourselves if we’re to explain it well. We can’t avoid the complexities.

4. Efficiency.

  • Is this the most succinct way that I can say this? The more efficient we are, the more space we have to include essential information – and the more we give people in return for their time.

5. Precision.

  • Am I saying exactly what I want to communicate? We don’t always say exactly what we mean. Double-check if the words you’ve chosen match what you hope to get across.

6. Context.

  • Why does this matter to the people I’m addressing? People are far more likely to want to hear what we’re saying, if they’re convinced it matters to them.

7. No distractions.

  • Am I including verbal, written or visual distractions? We all frequently include information that works against, rather than supports, what we’re trying to communicate.

8. Engaging.

  • Are there moments in your explanation when attention could waver? If we lose someone, whatever we have to say next may not register.

9. Useful.

  • Have I answered the questions that people have about this subject? If we address people’s questions, there’s a great chance that they are going to want to hear what we have to say.

10. Clarity of purpose.

  • Above all else, what am I trying to explain? If we can be clear on this, the decisions that we make about which information to include, and which language to use, will become a lot clearer too.

I assume Mr Atkins will not object to me quoting him verbatim like this. It’s a super checklist against which to compare anything explanatory we write. The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence is out now.