dumbing it down

One of the most annoying phrases I hear at work every day is “dumbing it down.” I heard it once when an employee of my client, a Fortune 500 company, said he was making a presentation to a division CEO. My coworker, a middle manager, had to explain some accounting issues to the CEO and said in order to do so he’d need to “dumb it down.”

A person hearing this phrase could take it one of two ways. The first, more relaxed way to understand it would be that it’s a friendly gesture. If I’m talking to a rocket scientist who is trying to explain how they shot down a spy satellite last week, I’m not going to understand much about thrusts and vectors and attitudes and so on. That rocket scientist is going to have a lot more success explaining it to me by drawing a picture or waving his hand around in the air and making explosion noises.

But I suspect the way my coworker delivered it was that he believes himself superior to this division CEO. Now, I am the last person who believes success in a corporation indicates intelligence (and you only have to read the Dennis Kozlowski headlines to see why) but at the same time for a middle manager to loudly and cheerfully tell a conference call of a dozen people that he’s going to condescend to explain something to a successful corporate divisional CEO just because that CEO isn’t a CPA seems, well, dumb. To assume someone gets to that level of a corporation without a fairly solid understanding of finance seems somewhat naive to me.

People have a hard time understanding the difference between summarizing, simplifying and stupidifying (my word). Learning to choose the right one is important:

Summarizing: This rocket will deliver 10,000 pounds of explosives at 543 mph directly into the satellite, vaporizing all of the dangerous toxic fuel prior to reentry of the debris and the potential dispersion of the fuel in gaseous form, causing mild harm to nearby people.

Simplifying: This rocket will destroy the satellite and eliminate the threat of harm.

Stupidifying: Boom!

Too often people choose to stupidify advice instead of simplifying it or summarizing it. I think stupidifying happens as a matter of course in corporations as a political move – an effort to keep specialized knowledge as “leverage” – and is the enemy of teamwork. Stupidifying something is also much easier than putting in the effort to write a clear and concise summary. If the subject you’re explaining isn’t important enough that you feel the need to clearly summarize it, or simplify it, then most likely the “dumbing down” is not for the benefit of the recipient, but for you.

(photo by psd)

5 comments

  • Ugh, you are so right.

    I used to work as a newspaper reporter. At one newspaper, any time I tried to be a little creative with a boring story, they’d send it back and basically tell me to dumb it down.

    I’m sure that if you’ve read through a newspaper recently, you’re probably not surprised by that.

  • I don’t know the actual quote, or if it even was a quote – but I remember being taught that a true sign of intelligence & manners was being able to communicate in a way that the listener can understand. And your 100% right – I think, on people wanting to keep their power. We humans are a power hungry bunch – aren’t we!

  • The point is not to preface anything you are going to say with “I am going to dumb it down for you” or “I will simlify it for you”. Just assume that not everybody’s as thourough as you are in your subject and no need to use fancy terminology.

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