“I’ve spent a lot of my life worried that people will think I don’t know enough. Sometimes, that worry has made me use big words when I don’t need to… some people say that there’s no reason to learn big words in the first place – all that matters is knowing what things do, not what they’re called. I don’t think that’s always true. To really learn about things, you need help from other people, and if you want to understand those people, you need to know what they mean by the words they use. You also need to know what things are called so you can ask questions about them”. Randall Munroe
This opening paragraph is from a quite spectacular book I recently discovered on my travels in Daunt Books , a beautiful independent book store in West London. I love this quote mostly because I wish I wrote it myself! But it’s from the book Thing Explainer , a beautifully illustrated thing created by Randall Munroe (he of What If? and xkcd fame) and published in the UK by John Murray.
I love it, not just for it’s content and it’s gorgeous diagrams, but because it reminds me of why I do my job. Working as an evangelist for a huge technology company has its perks (we invent a lot of cool stuff), but trying to explain the quite complex things that we do, in a language that the person on the street can understand is often quite challenging.
That’s why I love people who can explain complicated things in simple ways. It’s something that I always try to do, but never do well enough.
Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simple“. More crucially, he also said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough“.
Professor Brian Cox took this literally when he first created a niche science show back in 2010. He was already an incredibly smart physicist who worked at CERN and lectured at Manchester University, but he understand that making complicated things simple could impact the lives of everyone, not just academics. His shows are now on BBC1 and are huge successes, all because he has been obsessed with making science accessible. I had worked with him a while ago and remember him saying (with a twinkle in his eye),
“If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid in a language that she understands, then it’s bad physics”.
I’m not sure if Brian twinkled because it was a cheesy quote or because he hacked it together from a series of Einstein quotes, but it remains true all the same.
Many other people who I admire have had great success in making complicated things simple. Ken Segall (ex-Creative Director at Apple) wrote a superb book “Think Simple” about how we should be more proud of what we don’t do, than we are of what we do. Jobs was labeled as a maverick by business schools for many years, but he is now regarded as the textbook CEO who simplified complexity. Whatever you think of their papers, the political journalists from tabloid newspapers are often the smartest political commentators around, because they need to explain complicated issues to the average person (whatever average means). Go and have a look and you’ll see what I mean.
“Make it simple. But significant”. Don Draper
All the most watched TED speakers are the most watched not because they are the smartest people in the room on their subject matter, but because they make it accessible to everyone in the room. Primary school teachers are rockstars at making complicated things simple. In hospitals, nurses often have skills that the far more senior and experienced consultants do not. While consultants may know everything, and often explain it using complicated language, the nurses are far more talented at turning those explanations into words that don’t scare you to death.
Obama is a great communicator. Just watch him at a press conference when he is fielding spontaneous questions. He is a master at giving eloquent and simple answers to a tricky questions. (One could argue that Trump’s success has come about because he has excelled at making things too simple).
But not every is good at making complicated things simple.
“In the end, people are not persuaded by what we say, but by what they understand”. John C. Maxwell.
It’s tempting to use long words. It makes us look smart and feel intelligent. Most conferences are perfect examples. Look at the hashtags used by many of tweeters, or the buzzwords dropped by the keynote speakers, and they are often doing a better job of telling you how smart they are, than they are of actually helping you understand anything.
“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one“.
It’s a great quote that’s been attributed to everyone from Roosevelt, Twain, Pascal and Lincoln. Whoever first came up with it really doesn’t matter. The only advice you need to remember is this (a line I discovered in a business book written in 1857!)…
Wherever possible: Use big ideas, small words and short sentences.
Ps. As a special treat, here’s a picture of a smartphone and a submarine from Randall’s book. I highly recommend you treat yourself to a copy. You’re welcome! 😉