As Simple As Possible, But Not Simpler

By Guy Higgins

My last two posts concerned the choice of words that people use in communicating. My focus was a tendency to use polysyllabic terminology, excuse me – big words.

There is, of course, a flip side to that coin (as an aside, if anyone ever finds a one-sided coin, I want to see it). It is possible to use words that are too simple – to dumb down communication. For the purpose of clarity, I’ll define “dumbing down” as simplifying (word choice, sentence structure, flow) to a point at which it becomes harder for the reader or listener to comprehend the message rather than easier. Dumbing down can also kill your credibility or simply cause your audience to “tune out.”

For example, imagine that a knowledgeable person is going to talk about the physics of air pressure. That person might say, “Suppose you take a very sharp knife and cut a chunk out of the air – a chunk that is square on the bottom where it touches the ground and that is one inch on each side. Then suppose that you cut straight up along each side all the way to the top of the air. You would have a very tall and thin pile of air. If you weighed that very tall pile of air, it would weigh almost fifteen pounds.”

If that statement were presented to a class of first graders, it might be exactly appropriate. If, however, it were presented to a college intro-to-aerodynamics class, they would probably say, “Yeah, we got it – get to the point.” The college students might be more receptive to something like, “Air pressure at sea level is 14.7 PSI. That, however is the static pressure – the pressure of the air if it’s not moving and if the sensor used to measure the air pressure is not moving. Movement by either the air or the sensor makes a difference, and we’ll talk about that.”

That example is pretty extreme, but the point is that it’s important to communicate at the right level – which isn’t always the simplest level. Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Therein lies the catch – you have to have a good understanding of your target audience when you simplify just as you do when deciding to use complex terms.

So, the trick to avoid dumbing down your communication is to understand your audience and simplify “as much as possible.” Personally, I think that, in the case of communication (as opposed to physics, which was what the illustrious Dr. Einstein was talking about), it should be, “simplify as much as practical” to maximize the ease and effectiveness of delivering the message.

The purpose of communication, written or spoken, is to deliver the intended meaning. To do that, the author or speaker must:

  • Understand the audience
  • Establish the intended messages
  • Choose the appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure
  • Create a flow that makes it easy for the audience to “get it”

I suspect that there is a perfect level of simplicity for any audience, but also that there is a range of simplicity around that point – a range of word choices, sentence structure and flow within which you are communicating effectively. I also think that, outside that range, the effectiveness drops off steeply. So, it pays to think about those mundane choices of words, structure and flow of you want to deliver your meaning. It also pays to have someone else read it to see if it makes sense – before you deliver it.


2 thoughts on “As Simple As Possible, But Not Simpler

  1. Guy – this is a big issue with church communications – we have a wide and disparate number of potential audiences at Truro, depending on the circumstances. For the Alpha course, which is an intro to Christianity for seekers, you have to keep any talks at the simplest of levels, with lots of real world examples and anecdotes, and you can never assume prior biblical knowledge. For a Sunday sermon, many of the folks in attendance need a higher level discourse, as most have some background – yet many don’t, so you have to be careful. If folks are attending the St Paul’s Theological School course, they are folks seeking to go deeper, and the talks can be more theological, yet not to the point where seminary grads would be. Finally, a talk by a priest to an audience of clergy would be far more sophisticated, with lots of ‘big words” – and all of these examples take place here at Truro in any given day! Point well taken!



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