Keeping It Simple Is Key To Being Better Communicators Of Complex Ideas
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The other day, I was driving and listening to the radio, and the commentators were talking about jargon- specifically, business jargon. They were having an entertaining time laughing at how silly typical business phases sound out of the context of the office or a meeting. They were also discussing the perceived associations that come from the use of jargon- some workers use it in order to make themselves appear more astute and in touch with “the business world.” While some use jargon as a way of credentialing themselves, others see it as superfluous, divergent from actual intent, and lacking in clarity.
By definition, we know that jargon is, most often, intentionally difficult for others to understand. As the Merriam-Webster dictionary explains: jargon (n.): obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.
Removing jargon and simplifying how we say things and communicate means that we make it easier for others to understand. The more people that understand what you are communicating, the more fruitful conversation and discourse is possible between opposing viewpoints. Communicating in plain, jargon-less language also opens the conversation to more participants– which means more participants that will potentially agree with or add to the conversation. Simplicity in how we say things means more people can accurately and effectively understand and engage.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson champions: “The universe is hard enough. The last thing the universe needs is a complex lexicon laid down between the communicator and the listener to confuse them about what it is they’re trying to listen to.” How we say things and the language that is used is one component to communicate in a clear and simple way. The other component is in what we say. The truest evidence of understanding of a complex idea is the ability to simplify and synthesize that idea– and to be able to communicate that idea to others.
Ockham’s razor is a mental model attributed to the 13th century philosopher, William of Ockham. It’s a principle that favors simplicity and guides that “of two competing theories, the simpler of the explanation is to be preferred.” Scientists and theorists from Einstein to Galileo have used this principle to guide their work and discovery for centuries. For centuries, the most brilliant minds have understood the imperative to work towards the derivation, the most simple explanation in order to seek the truth in science and the world.
While we may not be scientists (and we are certainly are not Einstein), this principle is wholly applicable to the way that we explain and communicate ideas today. So, how can we be better communicators, better stewards of complex ideas? How can we strive for simplicity?
For starters, make your idea or communication concrete and avoid abstract descriptions that can be difficult to follow. Often, quantifying an idea is a shortcut to making it more concrete. This can be done in many ways.
- Put your idea in context by explaining it in relation to an existing and well-known idea. Start from what your audience knows and is familiar with, and then make comparisons to show the relation of the existing idea and the new one. How are they similar or different?
- If an existing reference idea doesn’t exist, use a metaphor to explain an idea, pulling from other industries or environments, to explain your idea in a simple, relatable way.
- Frame your idea in a storyline. What will happen before, and what will be the outcome? Using chronological context simplifies an abstract, complex idea into an idea that is in context, and relates to common sense or innate expectations.
- Say it another way by first removing the jargon, and then, as needed, shift emphasis. Stating a complex idea in plain language, considering the perspective of your audience may be all the simplicity required.
French philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote: “I wanted to write you a shorter letter, but I ran out of time.” It often requires more time, effort, and consideration to dissect a complex notion to its simplest form- yet simplicity is not something to shy away from. Simplicity is not always the absence of understanding, but frequently, the proof of it. We should all put in a bit more effort to strive to keep it simple.