Dumbing down might not be so stupid, after all

Few phrases frustrate me as much as “dumbing down.” Usually, I hear it as a command (“This is technical, so dumb it down for our customers.”) or a protest (“I don’t think I should have to dumb this down!”)

Both uses are offensive. Both are also clear signs the speaker doesn’t understand human communication.

Years back, I was working on a newsletter with an accountant whose own writing was as incomprehensible as the Internal Revenue Code. He consistently resisted my efforts and those of his staff to rework his words so his firm’s clients would actually understand what he was telling them. He didn’t want to dumb things down, because any simplification was an insult to his profession’s stature in his eyes. As a result, his wise counsel was ignored and wasted because his clients just couldn’t grasp his advice.

Simply put, if people can’t understand what you’re trying to say, they can’t do what you want them to do. They can’t learn what you think they should know.

Communicating with people at their level of understanding isn’t “dumbing down,” it’s being a kind, effective communicator.

Take the accountant. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and his encyclopedic knowledge could help his clients stay on the good side of the IRS. That’s why those clients hired his firm in the first place. Of course they don’t know as much about taxes as he does! That’s why people like us turn to people like him.

But he was far more interested in preserving the prestige of his profession than sharing his knowledge. It’s a common malady among some professionals. Their first priority isn’t helping you; it’s ensuring you’re appropriately awed and impressed with their superiority.

Compare Mr. Accountant to the automotive engineer who helped me explain a new gasketing approach to service technicians. Instead of providing a doctoral-level explanation of elasticity and similar properties, he reached into his desk, pulled out a rubber band, and explained how those properties worked. I understood immediately, and was able to convey his message to people who had never studied physics.

We’ve all had amazing experiences with skilled professionals who constantly adjust their own knowledge to the level of their audiences. We call them teachers. The average science teacher has amassed deep knowledge of their discipline, understanding extremely complex concepts at the graduate level. But when it comes time to explain those concepts to their classes — whether they’re juniors, seventh-graders, or grade-schoolers, they can’t use graduate-level language. They have to present the material at age- and developmentally appropriate levels.

Think of your best high school and college teachers. I’m certain they were brilliant, but I’m just as certain they never made you feel as though they were “dumbing down” their subject matter so you would understand it. That’s because they grasped that it was up to them to reach out to you at your level, not the other way around. In fact, they probably shared that material with you in a way that made you feel as though you were becoming smarter with each lesson. As your own knowledge increased, they gently added to the rigor to challenge you without overwhelming you.

You’re an expert in your chosen field. When it comes time to share what you know with people outside that field, remember your outstanding teachers and use their techniques as a model. Convey your information — whether it’s a new wrinkle in tax deductions, a caution resulting from a federal court decision, or a way to get more production out of a trusty veeblefetzer — at their level. And please wipe the phrase “dumbing down” from your vocabulary.