Explain this to me like I’m a 12-year-old
There’s a great scene early on in the movie Philadelphia.
Denzel Washington, an attorney, sits in his office hearing a request from a rival lawyer, Tom Hanks. The Hanks character, Andy Beckett, has been fired by his firm for cause, or so it seems. But we quickly learn he wants to sue for wrongful dismissal. Beckett has AIDS and thinks the good old boys at the firm just don’t want him around anymore. Denzel tries to track all of this, but finally loses patience, buries his head in his hands and blurts out, “Alright, explain this to me like I’m a two-year-old… because there’s an element here I just cannot get through my thick head.”
It reminds me of my high school days. I was reasonably good at English but hopeless when it came to understanding Shakespeare. Luckily, Coles Notes bailed me out by stripping those plays down to ‘12-year-old terms’ — plain language even I could understand.
Fast forward to today — and to what’s going on in business, in our schools and governments and non-profits, and in our everyday conversations too. Like Shakespeare, there’s a ton of noise that’s not easy to get through our thick heads.
It’d be a lot easier if it was explained to us like we were 12-year-olds.
So how did we arrive at a place where we talk (or write) too long — with too many words, too much jargon — such that the people we’re talking to don’t really get what we’re talking about?
I’m as guilty as anybody.
- “It’s the customer experience,” I’ll say. (That’s how customers feel when they deal with us. So why don’t I say that?)
- “Key imperatives.” (Those are must do’s.)
- “Value proposition.” (How we help customers — and why we’re better than the other guys.)
- “Synergy.” (&^%$#.)
You get the picture.
Now multiply this by a bazillion. It’s in our memos and e-mails and our death-by-PowerPoints. In our proposals and speeches and Zoom calls. And it’s mostly in how we talk. It’s like that demented prison warden in Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here… is a failure to communicate.”
Why do we do this, especially to the people we’re (supposedly) trying to help?
I see a number of factors in how we got here.
First, we learned it all in school. We were taught to write long and to sound important. It was the world before texts and Twitter and an attention-deficit society. I’ve seen this particularly up close with our daughter, Ally, and the style and length she’s been taught to write to in high school. I’ll eyeball her assignment and see that 400 words would be just as good as 1,000, probably better. It’s useless — she has to comply. “You’re gonna want to forget most of this when you’re out in the real world,” I’ll say. (Eye roll.)
Second, I suspect a lot of us don’t trust ourselves to speak or write plainly. It’s scar tissue from how we were taught. What if I don’t sound smart enough? I’ll be embarrassed, vulnerable. (If you think I’m exaggerating, pay close attention to the next PowerPoint you sit through, or the memo you’re supposed to read before the meeting. And then ask yourself: would a 12-year-old get what’s going on here?)
There’s a third factor at play, too. Explaining things simply and clearly — in terms everyone can understand — takes effort. It’s hard work. It’s easier to make complicated PowerPoints than simple ones. It’s easier to write a long, convoluted memo than a short, crisp one that everyone understands.
I’ll throw one final consideration into the mix. We’ll never hear as many complaints about this as we should — because most people don’t want to look stupid. Few of us want to put up our hands and say “I don’t get it.” We’d prefer to pretend we get it… and the cycle repeats.
Instead, I’d invite us to remember three things:
1. People don’t hate simplicity, they seek it.
Our job isn’t to prove how much we know. It’s to help others understand in the easiest way possible. Einstein said, “if you can’t explain it to a child, you don’t understand it yourself.” Simpler is better.
2. People don’t dislike brevity, they crave it.
So write shorter and crisper, and speak that way too. (Dr. Fauci was asked the other day, do we still need all these protocols now that the vaccine is being rolled out? His answer: “If you’re fighting a battle, and you know the calvary is on its way, you don’t put your guns down and stop shooting.” And then he stopped talking.)
3. People don’t like jargon, they want to kill it.
So deep-six the words that make you sound like you’re speaking a foreign tongue. You may know the language, but we need a Berlitz guide. Make it easy on us, not difficult.
Two quick examples to end off.
If your goal is to confuse me and prove how smart you are, by all means, write this way. (I’ll read and watch anything on golf, but this post from the USGA made me feel dumb, stupid, exasperated… ).
If, however, you want to talk to me on my terms — in language I can “get through my own thick head” — then take the time to do it like the original ‘Mad Man,’ David Ogilvy. It’s so much easier.
He explains it to me like I’m a 12-year-old.
We may think we’re being clear. But we’re really not. So remember that the ultimate test isn’t to make ourselves sound smart.
It’s to help our audience understand in the easiest way possible.
So ask yourself:
- Can you be brief, clear and kill the jargon?
- Can you explain it to a child?
- Does your message pass the 12-year-old test?