As I talk with people about the need to simplify what they say or write, the push back that I often hear goes like this: “I like what you’re saying in theory, Wiley, but I work in a technical field. That kind of simple language just isn’t possible.” But to quote Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler from a funny Weekend Update skit on Saturday Night Live: Really!?!
I’m as intimated as the next guy about technology. One reason is that technology communication is mind-bogglingly dense. Most of you, dear readers, probably have no chance to read news releases about things brought to us by engineers. Here’s the first sentence from the only technology news release I looked at a while back on PRNewswire:
Texas Instruments Incorporated (TI) (NASDAQ: TXN) and 4DSP, an innovative company specializing in low power, low weight and compact FPGA-based signal and image processing systems, today announced their collaboration on a new mezzanine card, the FMC667, for mission critical applications.
Did you get that? And what about the editors out there who have time to do little more than skim all the releases they get? Do you think this lead told them what they needed to know? Did the editor jump up and shout, “My god! I have to work this news into the next issue?”
Let me digress. It just so happens that when my son was in the 8th grade, he came home from school with an assignment to make a presentation on string theory. Now, if you are like me, you’re wondering when did 8th graders start studying quantum physics? I realized that I didn’t even remember studying string theory in my 12th grade physics class. (I later found out that string theory didn’t exist when I was in 12th grade.) So, being the good dad, I went to Google, which got me to a 19-minute talk by Brian Greene, one of the world’s leading minds when it comes to string theory. His talk was part of the TED series. (If you’re not familiar with TED, do yourself a favor and visit http://TED.org.)
So, I’m midway through the video when I realize that I’m actually grasping the basic concept of something that challenges the brains of people a lot smarter than me. I start noticing Greene’s word choices. The man uses clear, simple language, though he could easily do the Technology Mind Numb, if he wished. When the video ended, I downloaded the transcript and ran it through my clarity tool that measures its Flesch score for ease of understanding. It scored a 66! That says his talk was very easy to follow. By comparison, that Texas Instruments lead quoted above scored an 8. That says that most rocket scientists wouldn’t get through it. As a point of reference: Most news stories fall in the 45 to 55 range.
If someone can explain string theory using simple, easy-to-follow words, you should be able to do the same with whatever you’re writing about. Really.