Don’t Dumb It Down. Just Make It Simpler.

Oh, so you want me to dumb it down.”

If there’s one phrase that makes my skin crawl, that’s the one. When one of our trainees says that, I usually respond with this:

“We have to drop a SOT and VO into the package and feed it to Atlanta on the bird.”

They look at me with a quizzical expression until I explain what that piece of television jargon means:

“I have to insert a sound bite and some voiceovers into the news segment I’m working on and then send it by satellite to the Atlanta bureau.”

Now, did I “dumb down” the phrase, or just strip it of jargon and put it into plain English? I’d argue I did the latter, and I don’t think it’s a small distinction. “Dumbing it down” is a phrase that inherently views your audience as something to be condescended to, whereas “simplifying it” implies respect for your audience.

Albert Einstein

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein        Photo credit: Oren Jack Turner Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress           

This comes up frequently when I deal with scientists, academics, and others in technical fields. They understandably value the nuance in their work, and they bristle at the idea of simplifying information to the point of making it inaccurate.

But there’s usually a middle ground between nuance and inaccuracy, and a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein gets it exactly right: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

As an example, one client of mine was fond of saying “rapid intensification.” I persuaded him to use “quickly getting worse” instead. Another client was fond of saying “pan-institutional.” I convinced her to permanently relegate that awful piece of internal jargon to the verbal graveyard.

During media training sessions, I often help spokespersons simplify their content by interrupting them and saying, “I’m not sure I understand that. What does that mean?” Their next attempt is usually better, but not perfect. So I’ll try again, “I’m sorry. I’m still not sure I’m getting that.” They almost always land on a simpler answer within a few tries, and they suddenly have a broadly understandable, media-friendly sound bite.

In the video below, I’ll offer one additional tip called the “12-Year-Old Nephew Rule” to help you lose the jargon.

Related: Why Scientists Are Such Terrible Media Spokespersons

Related: Why You Shouldn’t Say “I Don’t Know”