De-oversimplifying


Some ideas are so profound that, when you  express them succinctly, they seem like mere common sense.

The listener’s urge to dismiss the underlying Great Truth and World of Nuance of the Simple-But-Important Message is tragic… and yet it seems to be unavoidable.  All those things you were told as a child (or better yet, as a teenager) and you ignore may someday come into sharp light. “Ahhh… now I know what it really means when they say… etc.”    I’m convinced that life experience is largely a process of uncovering the true depth of meaning within plain words.

Bottom Line On Top

Effective (and persuasive) communication makes us want to compress our information and sum things up.   We want to simplify the complex; to give the big picture first; to provide the bottom line on top; to create a nice pithy “hook.”  Sometimes we just want to generate witty aphorisms.   Yet, there is the problem of appearing to lack understanding… and even actually losing understanding of content and context due to the effects of recursive abstraction.

Recursive abstraction  (…) where datasets are summarized, those summaries are then further summarized, and so on. The end result is a more compact summary that would have been difficult to accurately discern without the preceding steps of distillation.

A frequent criticism of recursive abstraction is that the final conclusions are several times removed from the underlying data. While it is true that poor initial summaries will certainly yield an inaccurate final report, qualitative analysts can respond to this criticism. They do so, like those using coding method, by documenting the reasoning behind each summary step, citing examples from the data where statements were included and where statements were excluded from the intermediate summary.

– Wikipedia, on Data Analysis in Qualitative Research

This is why in any communication, there is an art to knowing how to summarize a key message on the front-end, versus how to summarize it on the back-end.  On the back-end, it can be a good strong punch line.  On the front-end, it often needs a more delicate set-up.

This holds especially true for persuasive or instructional communication.

Too simple up front and you lose ’em to the “d’uh obvious” or worse, you’ll appear to be glib and superficial

Too complex up front and they think you’re [*yawn*] boring, or they’ll think you’re rambling (and they’ll be wondering if you’ll ever get to the point), or worse, they’ll think you’re trying too hard to impress them, that’s it’s all pretentious puffery and superficial intellectual facadism.

(hmmm… superficial at either extreme?)

Here is a simple idea — well really, a set of simple ideas — very effectively communicated decades ago by Viktor Frankl:

(video HT @GilY… scoring a high ratio of muse-worthy material on this blog lately)Notice how well Frankl engages the audience throughout the clip. Near the beginning of the clip there’s an an audience-relevant statistic followed by some self-effacing humor and a playing-off of his mid-twentieth century Viennese intellectual accent  (with all its Freud-like — but surely not Freudian — associations). With his passionate voice and body language, he carries us through to the very end where he delivers a punch line consisting of a metaphor, a quote from Goethe and some words to live by. He’s made it so simple, yet so profound.  It’s no wonder that so many motivational speakers and self-help gurus do such a poor job… they’ve taken the powerful ideas that Frankl crystallized and, well, oversimplified them.

Don’t Use Eight Words When One Will Do

In our work of coaching senior executives and their communication skills, one observed pattern that has emerged for me and my colleagues is the following:  As a person progresses in their career and gains seniority they will use less and less obscure language and technical terminology. Why do young whipper-snappers use more jargon?  Do they just want to prove their “expertise,” or are they required to do so?   Or is it a bit of both?

Someone with established authority can speak in simple terms. At a global conference when asked what was the most important message to get out to the world today, the Dalai Lama said, “I think… that people… need to be… kinder… to each other” (KT @MeirS). The audience was impressed, but of course in that situation it’s largely who the speaker was and how he said it, versus what he said, that made the difference.

Nevertheless, in the ordinary business world there are so many people who make themselves appear more junior than they need to be because they don’t speak clearly and simply, because they try to sound smart.

So how to strike the balance, when you’re not the Dalai Lama or Viktor Frankl?

How to present an idea that is simple and beautiful like a flower…  and intriguing enough to make the listener (or the learner) want to lean towards it and inhale?

How to teach simple truths with impact?

(roll the Taylor Mali video  again…)

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on January 20, 2011, in Communication Skills, Information Design, Instructional Design, Learning, Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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