I was working with The Expert, a person who has all the credentials you’d ever need and a deep understanding of her subject matter. The goal? Create a video explaining The Expert’s complex subject matter for rank-and-file employees.
“We want to explain the subject simply as possible,” I said. “Use small words. Imagine yourself explaining the subject to a bunch of intelligent fourth graders.”
That proved to be a difficult goal. Word came from on high that the project had been cancelled. Time passed.
A later conversation revealed what was going on behind the scenes. The Expert, I learned, had been offended — not personally, but on behalf of the rank-and-file. The Expert had told Someone in Charge that my direction — to imagine speaking with intelligent fourth graders — was an insult to employees. “We should think more highly of the staff,” The Expert said. “They’re smart people, and calling them ‘fourth graders’ discounts their intelligence.”
Had The Expert had listened more carefully, she might have noticed I never called my co-workers fourth graders; instead, I suggested that imagining an audience of fourth graders might prompt The Expert to speak more simply about her topic. Her distaste, I suspect, wasn’t so much over this imagined insult as it was my suggestion that her complex topic could be explained in simple terms.
Long ago, I formed a belief: if you really understand something, you can explain it in words of one or two syllables, using no fancy jargon at all. I stand by that. But don’t take it from me:
“Good writing is not about impressing people with how smart you are but about explaining your subject as simply as you can.” — Camille Sweeny and Josh Gosfield, paraphrasing Stephen Dubner, the author of Freakonomics.
It is important? Do people need to understand it? Does it matter?
Say it simply.