Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

19 February 2014

Explain versus describe?

Clark @ 6:45 AM

I’ve been watching the Olympics, at least select bits (tho’ I’m an Olympics widower; the full panoply is being watched in the house). And I enjoy seeing some of the things that I can relate to, but I realize that the commentators make a big difference.

The distinction seems to come down to a fundamental difference (aside from the ones that drill into uncomfortable zones with a zeal that seems to be a wee bit inhuman): the ones who describe what’s happening versus those who explain.  Let me explain.

Description isn’t a bad thing, so when I watch (American) football, a guilty pleasure, the play-by-play commentator tends to describe the action, helping to ascertain what’s happened in case it’s confounded by intervening people, bad camera angles, interruptions, what have you.  Similarly, I’ve been listening to Olympic commentators describe the action in case I have missed it. And that’s helpful.

But in football, the color commentator (often a player or coach), interprets or explains what happened, and interprets it.  Similarly, the good commentary on Olympics has someone explain not just what happened (X just made a spectacular run), but why (Y was absorbing the forces better, minimizing the elements that would detract from speed). And this is really important.

I have a former mentor, colleague, and friend who is now part of an organization that enhances sports broadcasts with additional information; it’s a form of augmented reality showing things that started with first down lines in football but now includes things like wind and tracking information in the America’s cup.  Similarly, I have loved the overlays of one person’s performance against another.  The point is providing insight into the context, and more importantly the thinking behind the performance.

The relevance I’m seeing is that showing the underlying concepts help inform the exceptional performance, help educate about the nuances, and help support comprehension. This relates so much to what we need to be doing in business.  Working and learning out loud is so important to transfer skills across the organization. Showing the thinking helps spread the understanding. Whether it’s breaking from the pack in snow cross, or closing deals, having the thinking annotated is essential for spreading learning.

Whether it’s a retrospective by the performer or expert commentary, explaining, not just describing, is important. Does my explanation make sense? :)

1 Comment »

  1. Clark, here is my modest opinion. Description is never a bad thing, I agree. I just saw a football (soccer) game between Arsenal (UK) and Bayern Munich (Ger). At one moment, the camera showed a German player dribbling the ball into the opponent’s penalty area and how he was taken down by a defender to prevent him from scoring. The narrator described the action, which helped me to clarify what had happened. The description certainly helped me understand what I was watching. What I had just seen on a TV screen was now complemented by an explanation of the facts.

    However, soon after the penalty kick was sanctioned, the commentators began to share their own opinions, with a bias in favor of Arsenal. A commentator expresses a personal opinion of the facts, often times influenced by past experience, favoritism, nationalism, commercial/business obligations, or some other kind of biased behavior.

    My point is that describing will indeed support comprehension and enrich the learning experience. However, interpretation is a whole new process, involving more complex behavioral responses – I may or may not agree with the interpretation is the most obvious one. Often times, I find that commentators destroy the audience’s experience by adding doubt, confusion, and negative criticism. During a recent world football tournament I heard a commentator disrespecting the people of an entire country by calling them “A Little Country where nothing much is happening” – which was completely unnecessary.

    Thank you for publishing this article. I have followed your publications for a while and find them very interesting.

    Paulo Castro | @FullMind_Design | http://www.linkedin.com/in/pauloxp

    Comment by Paulo Castro — 19 February 2014 @ 10:08 PM

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