Should you dumb it down?

Of all the phrases I’ve encountered in my career, few frustrate me as much as “dumb it down.” I usually hear it as a command (“This is technical, so can you dumb it down for our customers?”) or a protest (“I don’t think I should have to dumb this down!”)

Both uses are offensive — and a clear sign that the speaker doesn’t understand human communication. In my experience, the phrase is most common among professionals and denizens of the corporate world’s C-level. It isn’t used by all of them — or even most of them — but by those who set themselves on a plateau above others.

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

When someone suggests that something needs to be “dumbed down,” he or she is actually insulting the audience for being less knowledgeable or less intelligent. The phrase demonstrates lack of empathy and respect for the customers, prospects, or other stakeholders who are the target (and who were apparently smart enough to choose your company).

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

Take the accountant I mentioned earlier. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and his encyclopedic knowledge could help his clients minimize their tax burden and 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 in actually sharing his knowledge. It’s a common malady among some professionals. Their first priority isn’t helping you; it’s ensuring that you’re appropriately awed and impressed with their superiority. That comes through loud and clear whenever they try to share information with mere mortals.

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 experience 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 her discipline, understanding extremely complex concepts at the graduate level. But when it comes time to explain those concepts to her classes — whether they’re juniors, seventh-graders, or grade-schoolers, she can’t use graduate-level language. She has to present the material at age- and developmentally appropriate levels.

Think of the best teachers you had in high school and college. I’m certain they were brilliant, but I’m just as certain that 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.