The Power of Clear Explanations
Written by Jim Knight.

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Oliver Wendell Holmes

 If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you watch Joe Smith’s four and a half-minute explanation of how to use a paper towel.  His simple explanation changed my life.

What makes Mr. Smith’s explanation so effective?

There are at least four strategies Mr. Smith uses to make sure we know exactly what he is describing. If we apply his strategies to our own explanations, I’m convinced we can be much clearer as teachers, instructional coaches, or presenters.

Why: How to use a paper towel is not that sexy of a topic, but in just a few words, Joe gets our attention and explains why we should care about what he’s describing.  One paper towel per person per day would save 571,230,000 pounds of paper in a year.  Wow.  Even if I’m not that concerned about the environment, I would find it hard to resist those numbers. If nothing else, Joe has captured my attention at the start.

Simple:  Smith doesn’t give us a lot of extra information.  In fact, his talk is built around two words:  shake and fold.  By telling us only what we have to know, he makes it extra easy for us to learn and remember what he is explaining.

Modeled:  Mr. Smith shows us several times how to do this. He even sets up a little sink on the stage so that we can see exactly what to do.  Some of the viewers the TED website give him grief for using too many paper towels during his explanation, but I think he does exactly what needs to be done.  He makes sure we get it by overdoing it.  Too often modeling is cut too short and people are left a little confused. Joe leaves no doubt in our mind how to do what he’s describing.

And, for the record, I’ve already saved dozens of pieces of paper thanks to his explanation, so I’ve made back the few he used up modeling.

Memorable.  Smith helps us remember his explanation in simple ways: getting the crowd shouting out “shake and fold,” displaying a sense of humor, connecting the twelve shakes to twelve to the twelve apostles, twelve zodiac signs and so forth.  After less than five minutes, he makes it almost impossible for us to forget what he has to say.

These are simple strategies, but they are powerful. If we (a) explain why, (b) keep our explanations simple, (c) model, model, model, and (d) make our talk memorable, more people, (children and adults), will remember what we say. Our explanations might just change people’s lives.

Joe Smith changed mine.


  1. Deborah Knight

    The Oliver Wendell Holmes quote has been the mantra at our professional development site this week. We are already using the video (we all shake and fold now) and the commentary to hone our practice. We are working on a TED talk about language modeled after the video. Thank you for the inspiring thoughts.

    • Jim Knight

      Thank you Deborah. I can’t wait to see the TED talk. Be sure to let us know here when it happens.

  2. JonDavidGroff

    Last week I sat my students down one by one for them to talk to me about what more I can do to help them, as an individual to get the most of their education in my ELA 10 course. One thing I heard from a couple students was that they are often uncertain of what I am wanting from them; they wanted me to be clearer. Now, I thought I was being very clear. They get repeated explanations to the point where they tell me to stop talking and let them work. They get very detailed assignments that point form exactly what they are to do in a checklist fashion with plenty of explanation. They get what I’d say are well-thought out rubrics. Yet several students ask me to be clearer. After reading your post and watching the video, I think I give far too much info and confuse them with lengthy and varied explanations. I’ll have to give the ideas from this post a try. Thank you.

    • Jim Knight

      Hi Jon, I love the idea of meeting one-to-one with students and getting their feedback. I had one quick thought. Have you thought about video recording your explanations? That might show that you’re actually very clear or show where to focus your attention. Just a thought. I find video very, very helpful


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