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Simple is as simple does

When playing to the masses, there's a tendency to 'dumb it down' a little too much. That's a mistake
A computer, illustrative (CC BY-SA HackNY, Flickr)
A computer, illustrative (CC BY-SA HackNY, Flickr)

I was reading a recent article in the New York Times, which discusses the way in which various magazines write about science. The author of this article describes his experience of submitting a written piece for publication, back when he was a student of public health. The editor informed the young author that his writing was dull and impossible to fix. On review of the article, the author realized that he had made significant use of “cumbersome language [and] weighty arguments” which overwhelmed the key points he was trying to get across. After significant soul-searching, the author adjusted his writing by “removing  the public health jargon [and] the ponderous turns of phrase”.

To be honest, I found myself saddened by the author’s conclusion. He was effectively stating that the general public “can’t handle the truth”. Rather than work on a style of writing that would make complicated terminology far more readable and interesting, the author seems to have come to terms with the gutting of his own writing. His goal was now to make his writing palatable to a public that had just finished watching the latest exploits of one of the Kardashian clan.

Simplification has its places. When talking to children, or to an audience of professionals whose expertise lies in a different area entirely, it is acceptable to dramatically lower the level of complexity of the key points discussed. So if you are presenting a lecture on the origins of the universe to a high school class, it is reasonable to focus only on basic concepts. But there is a hope that a number of the students will not be satisfied with these simplifications and will further explore the topic. And from these students, we hope that the next generation of physicists will spring.

There is nothing inherently wrong with getting rid of all the “big words” when speaking or writing to a lay public. But what will inevitably happen is that someone with a counter opinion will do the same. Then, the individual who is reading both of these pieces will not judge them based on their scientific foundation but rather on the comic and lighthearted style of the authors. This is actually an excellent way to spread misinformation. The reader thinks that he or she has just read and understood a serious topic, yet has in fact been “protected” from the more involved concepts.

There has to be a happy midpoint between the extremes of turning science into a fairytale versus using language appropriate for a doctoral dissertation. Perhaps science majors need to be forced to take courses in creative writing, both for helping  with writing professional journal articles, as well as presenting to a non-science audience.

I fully appreciate that there are many people in the general public  who cannot point to the location of their hearts in their chests. But perhaps when presenting to such an audience, this could be dealt with by presenting a single slide that is anatomically correct, which clearly demonstrates the proper location and angle of the heart as it sits in the chest cavity, between the lungs and above the diaphragm. When discussing very complicated topics such as how our immune systems work, I do not deny that it may take twice as long to prepare a PowerPoint presentation that wraps up all of the technical terms into a basic set of processes but still retains enough detail so as to understand the effect of HIV  and the potential for various cures. However, once such a presentation is ready and is repeatedly used to explain such principles to a lay audience, then it will be much harder for another presenter to convince the same audience of totally unsubstantiated claims.

Interestingly, this same new skill could be of great value when presenting a startup’s idea to a group of potential investors. I have witnessed far too many times,  the founders of a startup describing in painful detail how their product or service is superior to others. The group of potential investors very quickly loses interest and needless to say, tends not to invest in such a group. Contrarily, if the presentation makes use of too many flowery terms and fails to present sufficient detail, the investors may stay awake but will still feel that they do not understand the foundation to the startup that will make it a success. Clearly then, the presenter has to be able to explain the value of the startup in terms that anyone could understand, while still describing enough of the detail in order for the investors to understand what they are buying. Generally speaking, startups do not have any extra money for coaching. But it is my impression that many startups would benefit from advice from a professional coach who would help them look more confident, be more focused in the content of their presentation,  be humorous at the appropriate times, and end with an undeniably powerful conclusion.

Keep it simple and thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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