Meaning Guide

Tim Urban and the art of making complicated subjects interesting

The underlying principle of most of the things I write (last week was a good example) is how shared meaning is created by connecting with shared experience, and I’m always on the lookout for examples of where this is being done well, preferably outside of the field of advertising.  So I was delighted a couple of years ago to stumble across the work of Tim Urban on waitbutwhy, who has made it his mission to explain complicated ideas in a simple and entertaining way.  Tim’s blog posts have slowly stretched into book-length essays, and yet they still get shared tens and even hundreds of thousands of times.  He has several high profile fans, the most famous probably being Elon Musk.

You don’t need to like his style, his content, his profanity, or even agree with half of what he says to appreciate that the man has an astonishing ability to communicate complex ideas in simple ways. 1 I find myself thinking why could my teachers not have been more like this in high school?

Here’s a post about how sound works.  Why oh why did my physics teacher not start by showing that in reality sound looks like this …

… and not like this?

I dropped the waitbutwhy team a line a couple of months ago, and they’ve happily agreed to let me analyse some of Tim’s posts, not for content but for communicational technique.  I thought before doing that though, that it would be good to hear a bit from the man himself.  He did a fun interview with Tim Ferriss last autumn, and there’s a stretch in the middle (between about 30mins and 40mins) where he unpacks his approach to communicating complicated subjects.

Here are the key takeaways, along with some applications:

1) Curiosity drives everything

There’s a 1 through 10 scale of how much you know about something – 10 being world leading expert and 1 being you’ve never head of the thing.  I start at 2 or 3 on most things – I’m a layman, but I spend however long it takes (a day, three weeks, three months) to learn enough to get to a 6.

The reason this is easy for me is because I’m super curious.  The more I learn the less ‘icky’ the topic gets, and when the topic gets ‘un-icky’, it starts to be super-delicious, the opposite of icky.  And then I can’t get enough … I hear seven different people articulate it in seven ways and it just rounds out my understanding and by the end I feel ‘wow, I totally get this’.

I’ve talked elsewhere about this positive reinforcement loop that happens, where the more you understand something the more you care about it, and the more you care about it the more you want to learn:

The challenge is getting past the point of “ickyness”. For most of us tis only  happens when we latch onto someone who’s incredibly enthusiastic about the subject.  I think this is true for everyone – at school most people tended to pick subjects not based on predilection or proficiency or prospective value, but on who was the most entertaining and inspiring teacher.  We all have bizarre areas of esoteric knowledge and interest, not because of some innate desire on our part, but because something happened along our life’s journey that caused that subject to catch our attention.

2) Being a recent learner is the best way to overcome the curse of knowledge

Experts sometimes have a hard time explaining things, because they don’t remember what it was like to be a 2.  I was there three weeks ago!   I know exactly where my readers are.  So I just look back down the road I went down to get to a 6, and I think, ‘how could I do that road way more efficiently, and how could I do it in a more fun way?’

This little snippet suggests to me several reasons why so much of the formal communication in large organisations, as in academia, is so bad:

  • There’s no one on the team who remembers what it was like to be a 2.
  • The comms person – the one person who maybe is a 2 – doesn’t have the curiosity and/or time to get to a 6
  • The sorts of tips and tricks that Tim goes on to talk about just aren’t well understood or taught. It feels like the internet is throwing up a small tribe of individuals – Tim or Vi Hart or Hank and Paul Green or whoever –  who appear to just be preternaturally talented at making things understandable.  But I don’t think there’s anything preternatural about it – we need to study it, understand how it works, and start doing it ourselves.

3) Shared meaning comes from shared perspective

With almost any explainer post – on crypto-currency say – the first thing I do is just zoom out.  I helicopter up.  If you’re looking at the land and you just see a beach, you don’t really know what it is.  Is it a beach?  A little strip of sand?  And a lot of the crypto currency articles are like that – they just show you a piece of beach and the author might have a full understanding of the landscape, but to you they’re just describing a beach.  So you take the helicopter up and you see ‘oh I see, this is a big river’, and you take it up further, and you see ‘this is a tributary and it’s flowing into the ocean’, and then you take it out maybe further up to an aeroplane, or a space station, and you see ‘ah right, this is what is going on’.

So I always start there as a thinker, and people make fun of me, because I’ll write three pieces, and they all start with the Big Bang.  But sometimes it’s helpful, by the time you get from the Big Bang to now, you can see the whole coastline and suddenly the beach makes sense.

I love this quote, I guess because it’s pretty much my own go-to metaphor for the impact I want to have in the world.  Tim’s point is that zooming out helps you understand better because you see things in context.  But to my mind the more significant point about zooming out is that you create shared meaning, because somewhere along the line you reach a point of shared perspective.  This was the idea underlying my talk at TEDx Oxford last year.  We may all disagree about what this stretch of sand here is, but we all agree that that is planet earth.  To explain something in a way everyone understands, you always need to start with the big picture view.

4) Visual metaphors stick

There are so many things where you can just do a quick stick figure or a simple diagram and it’s just way clearer.  So if I’m going to do a post about procrastination, I could talk about the limbic system and how it works, and being in the fight or flight zone … or, I could make an instant gratification monkey.  Because that’s essentially what it is, and that’s more memorable and more fun to read at the time.

I’m not sure what to add to this.  If you’re not sure about the procrastination monkey, and you haven’t done so already, then you really should read the complete post. and watch Tim’s TED talk on the subject.

What this highlights for me is the fact that meaning is not dependent on aesthetics.  So many people never start drawing because they’ve already put themselves down as “not visual”.  The series of Instant Gratification Monkey drawings work not because they look like Rembrandts, but because they reflect the experience of procrastination.  Shared meaning comes from connecting with shared experience, and it’s a simple function of our mental wiring that this connecting is done faster through well chosen visuals and metaphors than words, because the pictures and the metaphors are themselves closer to our experience of being in the world.

  1. I should point out for those of you who are easily offended, that his style is irreverent, frequently crude, and almost always profanity-laden, although I notice he has started creating ‘G-rated’ versions of his more recent posts.

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