Explaining Things Simply

Humans try to make everything really, really complicated. Sometimes we need the complexity but we often do it just because we can. We do it without thinking about it, perhaps a subliminal way of telling people to check out our species’ big brains.

It’s also the way we write. We write long and complicated emails, memos, documents, blog posts, whatever. We use big words when we could very easily use smaller ones. Think about all the times you’ve used the word “utilize.” You don’t need that word, ever. Another word you never need is “bespoke.” People who use those kinds of words are writing so that nobody will read or understand them, which is a complete waste of time for both the reader and writer.

It isn’t that people don’t like long written pieces. Sometimes people just don’t have the time, but more often “TL; DR” really means “TW; DR.” Too wordy. Didn’t read. Wish you’d gotten to a point in fewer words (you’re probably thinking that about me now, too).

This isn’t about the intelligence of the reader, either. Most people are smart in their own way. But would a neuropsychologist understand what a master machinist has written if it is full of jargon? What if they don’t speak the same language natively or at all? How does all that complexity translate in their mind or via Google Translate?

We should all try to remove unnecessary wordiness and complexity from our writings, starting now. My friend Maitri posted about a recent Twitter meme which started when xkcd explained how a rocket works using only the 1000 most popular English words (links are below). A scientist named Theo Sanderson created a web-based text editor that lets you know if you stray from those 1000 words, and a bunch of folks were trying to explain their careers using it. I gave it a shot using a topic I often find myself explaining to relatives and friends: virtualization.

You have a computer, right? You probably use it for a few things, but between the times you use it it pretty much just sits there. Imagine a whole room full of computers that only get used a little bit, and sit there most of the time, powered on. What if we could use those computers better?

We can; we make one computer pretend that it is a lot of computers. That way we don’t have to have so many, they use less power and space, and we get our money out of them. Thing is, we don’t have to change the way stuff actually runs on the computers.

It’s hard to write like that when you’re so used to writing complicated stuff. It’s so much easier to read, though. And if you practice talking like that you’ll find that people know what you’re actually talking about. That lawyer you’re talking to at your wife’s holiday party will totally get that you aren’t just an IT guy, you help save people money on their computers. Your career will make sense, because everybody understands money. He might even call you sometime to have you help his firm save money, too. You win, all because you chose to communicate, not talk.

It’s no wonder that people with good communication skills get paid more and get into fewer arguments with their wives. After all, communication isn’t blurting things out at people; it’s you writing or talking and the reader or listener actually hearing you and understanding your message. After all, how will people understand your message when they don’t understand the words you write or say?

Start by simply changing the words.


4 thoughts on “Explaining Things Simply”

  1. This is interesting. I think everyone in IT has struggled at least once how to explain what they are actually doing to curious friend or relative. Properly explaining what yoy do also helps combating situations like: “Hey you work with computers? Great, my computer pops up some kind of error all the time and then freezes, can you take a look at it by any chance?”

    On the other hand linguists are unhappy when vocabulary shrinks to smallest useable amount of words. It is also being said that there may be some correlation between intelligence and person’s own vocabulary. I am not talking about jargon now, rather thesaurus (ha I just used complicated word to sound like a scholar!)

    And then there is that fear from “newspeak” 😉

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