Why I Hate the Question “How Do I Dumb It Down?”

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Matt Handal blogOne of my favorite questions during my interview about Winning Bid Presentations by Matt Handal for his blog, Help Everybody Everyday, was “How do you know when you are ‘dumbing it down’ versus when you are ‘simplifying’ it. How do you recognize the difference?” I’ve had a lot of responses to this questions from “aha moments” to people asking me to dig deeper. I love that we’ve created a conversation about this, and I’m going to explain why I hate the question “How do I dumb it down?”

First off, your audience isn’t dumb. When working at the zoo, I spoke to many third years in preschool. They weren’t dumb; they just didn’t know yet. My job was to educate them and as a presenter, whether doing bid presentations, content marketing presentations, or sermons, is to educate. “Dumbing it down” connotates that you’re better than the people in your audience.

“Dumbing it down” connotates that you’re better than the people in your audience. When an engineer speaks at an engineering conference, the speaker must simplify his message because not everyone in the room has his specialty or tenure in the industry. The audience members are engineers too. “Dumbing down” is insulting regardless if you’re speaking to doctorates or preschoolers.

You should be speaking to share your message, insights, and understanding of an individual topic. Why share what you know if you just have to “dumb it down”? If your audience is so stupid, don’t bother telling them because they won’t understand it anyway. Conversely, if you have a message you want to share, simplifying it to match your audience’s level will ensure they understand it. When your audience understands, they can embrace it and share it as well as remember it better because when a presenter talks over one’s heads, those people become disinterested and tune out permanently.

web_offer_banner_video_6steps_communicationMy application of simplifying is rooted in my educational background and zoo days. Zoos, museums, and parks have interpreters that interpret the information to bring value to the audience about what may appear meaningless. This form of education, known as interpretation, dates back to the late 1800s with Enos Mills and then carried on by Freeman Tilden with the opening of the first national parks (100 years ago last week).

You’ve probably seen interpretation at work and didn’t realize it — when a ranger tells you the significance of the Grand Canyon and how it formed, a zoo keeper shares that a giraffe has as many vertebrae in their necks as humans, and when a docent explains the significance of a style of brushstroke in a painting. They are educating you about the importance of something that may appear meaningless and shares their knowledge with you. Anyone can read about facts from a textbook or sign, but an interpreter shares their passion and understanding to the audience’s level whether a child or an adult.

I call this technique of interpretation “simplification” to avoid confusion with interpreting languages and because I’ve tweaked these time-honored techniques to fit the business world. Because of my experiences presenting over 1,000 presentations in 5 years at the zoo to audiences of all levels, I learned first hand how to adjust what I say and how I say it. This lead me to working with numerous technical professions like engineers, IT professionals, marketers, doctors, lawyers, expert witnesses, and more. These professions have high-level terminology, lots of jargon, and sophisticated methodologies that the average person does not understand. I don’t help them to “dumb it down”, instead I help them to simplify their message so they are understood.

Misunderstanding in presentations and day-to-day business interactions leads to lost business opportunities with prospective clients, lost legal cases, lost future work with irate customers, and millions of dollars in things being down incorrectly because the audience didn’t understand.

The biggest mistake speakers make in thinking they are “dumbing something down” is their attitude. Audiences do not want to be lectured, they want a conversation and that requires understanding and the presenter to be observant to the audience’s cues. Most people will not ask questions when they don’t understand because they are too lost to figure out a question or they don’t want to be embarassed asking someone who thinks they are superior. Changing your mindset from that superiority to thinking that you’re sharing is a subtle, yet highly important step that will reap you enormous benefits.

Speak Simple bookTo learn more about simplification, check out my book Speak Simple – The Art of Simplifying Technical Presentation.

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How Speak Simple Can Help You

Win more work, increasing your billing rate, and prospects coming to you are all results of being an excellent presenter. Erica Olson created Speak Simple to help technical professionals to become comfortable presenting and excel at each presentation, whether a bid presentation or an educational, content marketing presentation. Learn more about Speak Simple’s flagship program is SpeakU, a self-guided presentation training program.

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