When It Comes to Communication, Less Is More

In a recent Newsweek column, science editor Sharon Begley made the blunt observation that "Scientists are lousy communicators." The piece was about the public's growing skepticism about climate change, but she asserts that the problem is connected as much to the scientists's "abysmal communication skills" as to anything else.

Her comments resonate because I know how difficult it is to communicate complex information in a way that is easily understood. The Council finally approved its regional power plan in February, but not until after a lengthy internal and public process.

One of the challenges when you work in a particular field, whether it's technical, scientific, or even relatively specialized, is that the very language used by those "in the know" is often completely opaque to the layperson. I'm talking about jargon. Not a useful way to communicate if you're trying to reach a broader audience.

And it's not just the words; just as often, it's the communication style. Rather than keeping things as concrete and simple as possible, we mistakenly think that more is better: more information, more detail, more pages. But a clearly made point only needs to be made once.

Part of the problem may be, as Guy Kawasaki noted in an interview in the NY Times, that we're conditioned in school toward meeting certain page counts. "In school, you're always worried about minimums. You have to reach 20 pages or you have to have so many slides or whatever." But in the real world, it's just the opposite. In real life, you need to get to the point, not bury it.

A researcher at University College London writing about cognitive fluency cited a study that found "...as the text became more complicated, readers gave lower estimates of the author's intelligence."

As one master of the message, Steve Jobs, put it, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."