“It’s just…it’s just more complicated than that.”
I’ve encountered variations of this statement a million times from clients. They think brilliant thoughts, they get published in leading professional journals, they are keynote speakers at prominent events. And still, it’s a struggle to convince them to (appropriately) simplify their work.
I want to spend a little time discussing techniques scholars can use to help make their complex work more accessible to mainstream audiences, including making your audience feel smart, repeating your message, and finding your authentic voice.
So what holds brilliant people back from effectively simplifying their complex work? Is it fear? I love what William Zinsser had to say about what the evolution of technology taught us about writing:
“Never have so many Americans written so profusely and with so few inhibitions. Which means that it wasn’t a cognitive problem after all. It was a cultural problem, rooted in the old bugaboo of American education: fear.”
Experience suggests smart people are afraid they won’t appear smart if they communicate in ways others will be drawn to and understand. I say, don’t be afraid. No matter how you’re presenting your work, there are a few overarching principles that will help ensure you’re having an impact.
Make other people feel smart.
History is complicated. Its layers, its interconnectedness, its vastness...these are things that make history beautiful. If you’re hanging with a group of historians, get all deep in those layers! But if you’re reaching out to an audience of non-historians, it’s time to simplify. And yes, you absolutely will look smart doing so.
You know why articles and videos go viral? Shane Snow suggests it’s because they make people feel both smart and energized. Read your writing out loud. If you become breathless, make some cuts. Avoid insider jargon or phraseology that doesn’t translate well to the mainstream. Keep sentences clear and efficient. It’s not easy, but it works. Make others feel smart. It will expand the reach of your work and they’ll come back for more.
Speak your message. Repeatedly.
What is the one thing that you want your audience to take away from your remarks? I encourage clients to identify the one thing they want people to remember at the end of their presentation, interview, or article. It’s hard! But inevitably everyone is able to choose one take-away that matters most.
Once that overarching message is chosen, put it on a loop. This applies to speeches, interview talking points, op-eds, guest blog posts, you name it. Repetition of your key take-away is critical if you want it to stick.
The following outline tends to work:
Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em.
Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.
Find your voice.
“You say words and I’ll type.”
This is a great exercise I use when clients feel stuck. We often get tied up in knots looking for the perfect words or turn of phrase. We work toward clarity, but find ourselves mired in details. There’s so much to say, it’s so hard to organize. Talking points become stilted, articles become cumbersome. It all stops working and no one feels smart.
When people start feeling stuck or overwhelmed, I’ll have them simply talk to me while I type out their words. It’s amazing how quickly we get to a sound set of talking points, or the final paragraph of that op-ed. It becomes natural again.
I encourage people to ‘write like you speak.’ The best communicators are authentic, incorporating their personal uniqueness in their work. You can adjust the levels of formality as needed depending on the situation. But remember, any form of communication really is conversation. Your authenticity will make it a conversation other will want to join.
Are you trying to share your work with a more mainstream audience? I hope you are. Are you worried about how you’re doing it? Don’t be. Keep it simple, repeat what matters most, and as the kids say, “you do you.”
Remember that line about conversations? This is one right here. Share your thoughts and experiences expanding the reach of your work. Have questions? Put ‘em out there! Leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’d love to hear from you.