Why is simple so hard?

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Working with experts can be tricky. It doesn’t matter whether your client's a lawyer, an academic, a scientist, or some other kind of expert. They know it's vital to find ways of sharing their expertise with non-experts but, understandably, they find doing it a challenge.

Sooner or later, you'll hear yourself saying something like, "so if I understand you correctly, you're saying the process you've developed is like a bit like a game of snakes and ladders", at which point your client will pause, look exasperated, and reply, "no, no, no, it's much more complicated than that!"

Put bluntly, experts worship at the altar of accuracy and regard simplification as the work of the devil. They behave as though simplification is little more than a euphemism for oversimplification. And if you press them further on this point, their first line of defence comes in the form of a special plea.

They'll tell you with a straight face that their particular discipline has a unique set of constraints that make it almost impossible to simplify their message without distorting it. The irony being that this form of special plea is not actually that special – in my experience, it's used by experts from every branch of knowledge you've ever heard of, as well as those you haven’t.

In reality, the principles of good communication are universal and non-negotiable. It doesn't matter whether you're a plumber explaining a heat pump to a customer or a nuclear physicist giving a lecture on nuclear fission to a lay audience, you need to put your own concerns to one side and focus on your audience. What do they care about? What do they know already? And what do you want them to feel and do as a result of listening to what you tell them?

Back in 2014 I heard a scientist talking on a BBC radio news broadcast about the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission – a mission to land a space probe on a comet. I'd heard of comets, though I’d have struggled to give you a detailed description of one. I was also familiar with the idea of space probes landing on extraterrestial locations, like the Moon and Mars. So, to be honest, the opening of the interview didn’t exactly set me on fire.

But just as my attention was starting to drift, the scientist said something that brought his message to life. He used a striking visual analogy to convey the enormity of the mission's achievement. He said attempting to land a space probe on a comet was like trying to land a fly on a speeding bullet.

In an instant, his words were transformed into an animated cartoon movie in my mind’s eye. A movie that conveyed the excitement he and his colleagues must have felt as their ten-year mission culminated in the first ever successful controlled impact of a space probe onto the surface of a comet.

You won't be surprised to learn that it wasn't too long before I heard another scientist dismiss the analogy as an inaccurate oversimplification. Could it be that the critical scientist, blinded by their expertise, had missed the point, shot past it, and disappeared into the farthest reaches of outer space?

Monday April 19th, 2021
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