October 31, 2019

Smart Brevity & "Dumbing Down"

We look at how Dr. Ian Bogost views the misplaced academic fear of needing to dumb down ideas for wider audiences and how to reframe that perspective. We also break down how to approach gaps in knowledge in situations where we assume the role of educator or expert.

Smart Brevity vs. Dumbing Down

Speaking about academics lamenting the need to dumb down their work to reach broader audiences, editor for The Atlantic Ian Bogost (and scholar himself), argues that if you write from a place of contempt, your information might not be so valuable and you might not be so smart after all: “Doing that work—showing someone why a topic you know a lot about is interesting and important—is not “dumb”; it’s smart,” he says. “If information is vital to human flourishing but withheld by experts, then those experts are either overestimating its importance or hoarding it.”

We can’t ignore the fact that we have unprecedented access to information and people have a need to know — whether out of genuine curiosity or anxiety out of not knowing. As such it’s become equally important for audiences to be able to absorb large amounts of complex information and media to process that for them, especially on relevant if specialized topics.

We previously wrote about the importance of slow journalism, the long-form content it tends to produce and the need for audiences to make time to actually process information again. Axios, for one, was launched with both the intention of sharing important (and accurate) information efficiently. In fact, this very Analysis series was inspired by Axios’ approach to “smart brevity” with the aim of helping readers make sense of the world around them.

In short, if you’re frequently in a position where people turn to you for knowledge, it’s less that you have to deign to “dumb down” your ideas — not too far off from the fear of “watering down” the craft for exposure that many creatives have — but rather, you have to get creative with how you package them if you deem them important enough to share.

Dumbing down is not as big a threat as imagined

To debunk the myth of dumbing down as being necessary to impart knowledge (especially if coming from a more formal context of expertise like academia), Bogost says scholars need to keep two key things in mind:

  • Context is Key: Where scholars need to write and publish a means of gaining the reputational currency to fund their careers, writing outside of the academic context is for different purposes. Similarly, what you do as an artist (title or not) will differ what you do if and when you do client work or collaborations.
  • We’re All in the Same Boat: Bogost notes that unlike other experts, academics are often teachers and as such, are involved in careers that emphasize helping people anyways. He also points out that writers and journalists write with the same core intention as well, even if yes, their work does also serve double-duty for career advancement.

We personally recall some professors in junior courses that would instruct us to write as if we were talking to non-experts and others in later courses emphasizing the need to speak directly to the expert grading them. It’s less about which approach is correct, but that the audience — the very people listening to our message — should be at the center. So in the context of creatives, we’d add another special point:

  • Don’t Throw Them Into the Deep End: As creatives, you need to communicate ideas of varying complexity to all types of people. Thinking of how to move the narrative (or production) along begins with something shallow but progressively, you’re bringing them deeper into the story, opportunity, or workflow. This isn’t a hard-fast rule because naturally, some things are common knowledge and others can be inferred, especially if you work with someone closely and regularly.

The Takeaway

When it comes to different contexts where knowledge is exchanged, whether it be in a public talk, in a private meeting or on set, there will always be scenarios where someone doesn’t get it or wants to know more. It simply comes with the diverse territory we work in.

Yet in all cases, sharing of knowledge — assuming it’s that it’s true to the name and not flaunting how much you know — has to come from a place of sincerity that takes effort to:

  • Get to the point intelligently: to render the most helpful amount of knowledge and in the most helpful terms necessary for a person to understand its importance if not do something with that information.
  • Reserve judgment: not everyone is a serial Googler (or reader of decks and briefs, sadly). You will always encounter situations where there will be a gap in up-to-date knowledge, expertise or understanding, and you will be on either side at some point. There’s no certificate or badge of honor for you to rattle off what you casually absorb on Reddit, in your news feed or anecdotally and yet be unable to actually explain that information to the uninitiated.
  • Reach understanding: means actively and dare we say, creatively, searching for new angles or means of communicating ideas, intents, and emotions so that we reach understanding — even if we don’t reach consensus.
  • Direct frustration: We aim to keep anger and frustration to a minimum projects in a way that’s distinct from pointing out gross errors or maintaining a sense of urgency on tight deadlines. Try as we may, we still might not reach understanding, however. But if you’re redirecting frustration at the situation rather than people, you’re more likely to focus your limited energies on immediate problem-solving as opposed to “hunting for the screw-up.” Save that for the debrief.

The final caveat is, of course, if you’re creating as an act of expression and less of communication or if you’re doing so for a niche audience. If you as an expert in your style or your work isn’t intended to be understood or engaged with by a broad range of people, then by all means, stay true to your vision and don’t let the need for greater exposure cloud that.

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