Physicist Stephen Hawking tried to answer some big, complex questions: Where did we come from? How did the universe come into being? Are we alone out there? The way he answered those questions reveals a brilliant mind who was equally brilliant communicator.
In a remarkable 2008 TED Talk, Hawking demonstrated how he was able to capture the public's imagination and endear himself to millions of people.
Although Hawking used his computer generated voice to talk to the audience, he brought the cosmos down to earth using simplicity and humor--two qualities everyone should use when communicating complex topics.
Hawking Used 8th Grade Language to Simplify Complexity
I put the transcript of Hawking's TED talk into an app called Hemingway. Educators use the tool to determine the appropriate grade level of a book. A book that returns a grade level of "10," for example, would appropriate for a high school sophomore. Hawking's talk returned a grade level of eight, which means the average elementary school student should be able to read it.
Text that reads at a higher grade level isn't always preferable, even for adult audiences. I've found that higher grade texts are often filled with confusing sentences and jargon. In contrast, the tool only found nine sentences (out of 59) in Hawking's talk that were considered "very hard to read."
Hawking avoided scientific jargon when speaking to the public. In the same year of his TED talk, Hawking co-wrote a paper titled, "Gravitational Waves in Open de Sitter Space." The paper lost me in the first sentence: "One appeal of inflationary cosmology is its mechanism for the origin of cosmological perturbations." I can't understand the paper because it wasn't written for me. It was written for mathematicians and physics PhD's.
The challenge for many scientists, engineers, and educators who communicate complex topics is to make the language understandable to a broad group of audiences. Hawking simplified his language by keeping his audience in mind. For example, Hawking's 1998 book, A Brief History of Time, sold 10 million copies and remained on the UK's bestseller list for five years. In the book, Hawking jokes that the readership would be cut in half for each equation he included. And so he only kept one.
"My original aim was to write a book that would sell on airport bookstalls," he once said. "In order to make sure it was understandable I tried the book out on my nurses. I think they understood most of it." Great advice. If you're communicating to a general audience, try out your content on people who aren't experts in your field.
Hawking Used Humor
In remembering Stephen Hawking, comedian John Oliver tweeted, "Stephen Hawking was a brilliant man, but he was also an incredibly funny man. It was a huge privilege to waste some of his time." I watched Oliver's 2014 HBO interview with Hawking. Oliver's right. Hawking made jokes and was quick with the one-line comebacks.
"Why should I not be excited about fighting a robot?" Oliver asked sarcastically.
"You would lose," Hawking responded, and cracked a smile.
In his 2008 TED talk, Hawking said the Earth hasn't been visited by aliens. "I am discounting the reports of UFOs. Why would they appear only to cranks and weirdoes?" Hawking said as the audience laughed. They laughed even harder when Hawking concluded, "Issuing an insurance policy against abduction by aliens seems a pretty safe bet."
Despite his circumstances, Hawking had a remarkable and disarming sense of humor. I recall watching Jim Carey promote a movie in 2003 (Dumb and Dumber). While Carey was being interviewed on Conan O'Brien's show, he received a phone call from Hawking and the two launched into a comedy skit.
"I just wanted to tell you how happy I am that you're excited about the new ekpyroptic universe theory," Hawking said to Carey as the two men complimented each other on their genius. When asked about it later, Hawking said he did it because "it sounded like fun."
Taking your topic seriously--but not yourself--is an endearing quality. The educator Ken Robinson, another famous TED speaker, once said, "If they're laughing, they're listening."
Millions of people listened to Hawking. They'll listen to you, too, if you keep your language simple and have a little fun along the way.