I hate the expression, "dumb it down," which originated in 1933 as movie-business slang used by screenplay writers, meaning "[to] revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence."
But I love the fact that people everywhere are getting more intelligent. As Peter R. Orszag writes in Bloomberg, "Average intelligence levels, as measured by standardized intelligence tests, have been rising since at least the early 20th century. A recent meta analysis included more than 4 million people in 31 countries found an average gain of about three IQ points per decade, or roughly 10 points per generation."
Okay; here's the tricky part: All those smart people need communication to be simpler than ever. And not because they can't understand complex sentences and big words--because they're inundated with information and need shortcuts to manage it all. This isn't about "dumbing it down," it's about making everything intelligently simple.
So to communicate effectively, you need to take the advice of one of the smartest people ever: Albert Einstein, who said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
What I love about this is that the responsibility is on you, the communicator: You have to be work hard to truly understand the topic, so you can convey it simply.
What else can you do to communicate so simply that even the smartest people get your message? Here are 5 ways:
- Never forget that you're a real person communicating with other people. Unfortunately, people these days spend so much time feeling like a tiny cog in the wheel, lost in a high-tech maze, reduced to nothing more than a number and a password. So we crave the human touch. We love walking into the local hardware store and knowing the shopkeeper, who gives us advice not based on guiding us to the most expensive solution, but what's best for us ("This 45-cent bolt should do the trick."). Your communication needs to be that personal and helpful.
- Write for your audience, not for clients/stakeholders/senior leaders. This may seem so fundamental that you may wonder why I even mention it. But I find that this is where a lot of content goes wrong. The scientists (or engineers or IT experts or finance geeks) want to include all that technical stuff. (After all, it makes them sound important.) So you load up the piece with arcane details. That means you lost sight of the fact that audience members don't care about the fancy stuff; they want content to be simple, understandable and relevant.
- Don't lecture; converse. Lose that imperious, from-on-high tone and replace it with a friendly, conversational voice. You know what I mean: Write the way you'd speak to a colleague or even a friend. Friends don't let friends use words like core competency, synergy and strategic imperatives.
- Be tangible, not conceptual. Here I quote business analyst and author Christopher Locke, who writes, "business. . . seems to assume we know what they mean when they sling around terms like value, brand and positioning and equate the resulting blur of vague ideas to something we might actually care about." Instead of "slinging" concepts around, make them very concrete. Everyone will understand that we need to cut costs by 10%. Or because we lose two out of five customers a year, we need to increase customer retention (and keep one of those that now leave us).
- Reduce your reading grade level. The best defense against Corporate Speak is analyzing your writing using a test like the Flesch Reading Ease Score or the Flesch-Kindaid Grade Level Score, which are conveniently built into Microsoft platforms. Remember that the average American reads at the ninth grade level. And that most marketing content is created at the seventh grade level. So when your content is coming in at the 13thgrade, you've got a problem. Time to cut out the big words. Make your sentences shorter and clearer.
The more accessible you make communication, the faster you cut through the clutter. It's just that simple.