don't worry about dumbing down, worry about dumbing up

Do we need to apologise for making things jargon-free and easy to understand...? One comms professional has just drawn a line in the sand.

by Jon Matthias

I’ve decided I’m not going to apologise any more for ‘dumbing down’. And I’m going to be less tolerant when people start ‘dumbing up’.

We have two challenges as communicators - to both be heard and be understood. Simplicity is the key to people understanding what we say. Clarity and brevity are our friends.

Sometimes that means taking technically complex subjects and reframing them in words that are in common use. For example, our campaign in Wales raising awareness of thrombosis talks about blood clots.

As we try to find the words that mean people will know what we are talking about, we might encounter a point of view that we are ‘dumbing down’ the issue or the problem.

Part of the art of good communication is the ability to explain complicated things using simple words. It’s time we stopped apologising for that. We should respond to the charge of dumbing down and say: “Yes, we are dumbing this down. We are doing this because not everyone is as smart as you are. And if you were smarter, then you would know that.”

But however irrelevant and annoying the comments about dumbing down are, there is a much more pernicious tendency in the public sector, which can drift into the things we say to the public. I call this tendency ‘dumbing up’ and it can be summed up as: using long words and phrases when short ones will do.

You know the sort of thing – using words like ‘utilise’ when you could utilise words like ‘use’. Many public sector organisations try to avoid this by sending their documents off to the Plain English reviewers.  I mean no disrespect when I say this, but that’s not the solution.

Frankly, the Plain English people are making money off people’s self-inflicted stupidity. People have dumbed up so much they have forgotten all the small words they once knew. They have forgotten to write in short sentences. They have filled their brains with corporate jargon and convoluted technical terms. Then they have to pay someone to take their gibberish and render it in readable form.

Let’s take one example, to show you how dumbing up damages our ability to talk like actual human people. How many times have you received an email with words like this in: “please do not hesitate to contact me”?

Have you ever used that phrase in real life? Imagine leaving an answer-phone message for your Mum. “Hi, Mum, looking forward to seeing you at the weekend. I’ll be arriving late. If you’ve got any queries, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

People who use the phrase say it sounds professional. Well if by ‘professional’ you mean ‘distant and frosty’, then you’re right. What is it really? It’s a meaningless corporate cliché, typed robotically by people who have dumbed up.

We might not even notice it any more. We have become immune through over-exposure. But think how that phrase reads to a non-native English speaker. It says ‘do not’ followed by a long, infrequently-used word. Think how that reads to a person with dementia. It uses six words to say – in a round-about way – ‘call me’.

In fact, think how it reads to anyone - I always feel it means ‘I don’t actually want you to contact me.’ It’s a barrier phrase designed to push people away, not draw them into conversation.

So resist the urge to dumb up! Write what you mean, not the fancy lingo that you think makes you sound smarter. Remember the job of a communicator is to be understood. It’s dumb to worry more about looking smart than doing your job properly.

Jon Matthias works in communications for the NHS in Wales.