Continuing the series
With this week’s topic “Don’t dumb it down!” (Exclamation point mine) The Urban Dictionary defines “Dumbing Down” as: The process by which products are stripped of depth and complexity in order to simplify them for the masses. In this instance, the “product” is information.
What in the world does that mean?
In the simplest of terms, this phrase simply means if you are talking about a complex topic, don’t try to oversimplify it for your audience. Are you an electrical engineer? If it adds clarity, go ahead and use those engineering terms. If your audience doesn’t understand, they will ask (or not, but that’s on them). Are you a doctor? If it adds clarity, then use the medical terms and let your patient ask for clarification. I will qualify the above by adding: If it makes the communication clearer.
Simplifying versus Over-Simplifying
Simplifying something is not nearly the same as over-simplifying it. Simplifying your message means you bring the message down to the simplest terms possible WITHOUT losing some part of the message. While oversimplification often results in losing nuances or details required for complete understanding. Hence, the phrase “dumbing it down”.
Over-simplifying things reduces meaning
Look, almost every profession on earth has certain “jargon” that goes with the territory. The jargon is there for a reason and serves (in most instances) to make sure communication within the industry is clear. Now, I am NOT talking about industry or (SHUDDER) government acronyms. I spent 40+ years working for the government and know that the same acronym may have multiple meanings depending on what agency or program you are talking about. Government acronyms drove me batsh*t crazy the entire time. Industry is almost as bad as government.
The “don’t dumb it down” issue arises when you are attempting to teach, mentor, coach or otherwise help someone. That help can take many forms such as giving a presentation to a group of industry newbies, writing a series of blog posts or even allowing someone to shadow you as you go about your work. I’m thinking primarily of speaking to someone who is either trying to break into your industry, is researching the industry, or who is generally interested in learning about the industry.
It’s not really helpful
Here’s the thing. When you dumb things down, you risk not fully communicating what you are trying to pass on. Even worse, dumbing something down has a tendency to add a lot of words in order to convey the same information, which is likely to cause you to lose your audience.
It makes assumptions about your audience
And not good ones. Feeling the need to dumb things down indicates you feel your audience is not smart enough to understand something. That may or may not be true, but it’s bad to assume in any case. Much better to assume they DO understand and let them ask for clarification where they need it. Dumbing down can also make your audience feel patronized.
The better approach
Instead of dumbing down your material, there are several things you can do to make sure your audience understands:
- Define unique terms and acronyms. This is particularly necessary when (as in the case of government acronyms) the same acronym may be used for different ideas.
- Whenever you use an industry term or phrase with an unknown audience, briefly explain the term after the first time you use it. EXAMPLE: For this audio I need 10DB of dynamic range – in other words I want the difference between the loudest and softest parts of the audio to be no more than 10DB.
- Offer additional information (presumably offline). Simply make additional information available if the audience wants or needs it for clarification.
- Break down complex ideas into smaller bits and explain the smaller bits. In my previous example you may first discuss decibels (DB) and explain them, then define what dynamic range is, and finally what 10DB of dynamic range means.
- Offer a Q&A period. Along with offering more material if needed, allow for some Q&A as well. You can do this easily if live, or if in writing (like this blog) provide a comment section and a way to contact you for further clarification if needed.
- Show…don’t tell. Whenever possible provide a demonstration of the concept you are discussing.
You COULD just simplify whatever it is you’re trying to say. “Isn’t simplifying it the same as dumbing it down?”. No. While I just spent several paragraphs telling you to “Go ahead and use the jargon” …I would suggest that jargon be used only when it is the BEST word or phrase to convey the information. If it can be said more simply without losing important details, becoming over wordy or insulting your audience, then feel free to simplify. As Albert Einstein said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
Sometimes jargon is just shorthand
This shorthand assumes a level of familiarity that may or may not exist with your audience. Using industry shorthand is really not the same as using industry jargon. Using the term packet when referring to transfer of data over a network means something very specific. A packet is a small subset of a larger dataset broken down and then reassembled on the receiving end. A packet is jargon, but NOT shorthand. A DB, on the other hand is shorthand jargon for decibel, a measure of magnitude.
Here is an example of jargon as shorthand:
“We have to drop a SOT and VO into the package and feed it to Atlanta on the bird.” Which can be simplified into “[We] have to insert a sound bite and some voiceovers into the news segment I’m working on and then send it by satellite to the Atlanta bureau.” (Throughline, Brad Phillips) Note that if you are not working directly in the industry, that first phrase sounds like something your grandmother said while chewing a mouthful of mashed potatoes without her teeth in. The second phrase, which has the exact same meaning as the first is easily understood by anyone. This is an example of simplifying your message, without OVERsimplifying it.
How does this relate to voice over and acting?
I’m glad you asked! In both of these industries artists tend to try and be very helpful with one another. Actually, this aspect of the entertainment industry is one of the things I like best about it. It’s very competitive, but the PEOPLE (by and large, not ALL of them) tend to not be competitive with one another. Dumbing down, or oversimplifying, industry jargon when helping someone, especially someone new to the industry, hurts them (instead of helping) in a couple different ways.
Not capturing the full meaning
Whenever you are attempting to help another voice artist or actor, not clearly communicating your message with all the details and nuance required stunts the audience’s growth. Anyone attempting to truly understand needs all the information and all the nuance required for full understanding. True, with a novice, you may have to repeat the lesson, or follow up in some way with clarification, but you are not really helping if you aren’t using the correct terminology.
It puts them at a disadvantage
You may have helped, and they may think they get it, but once they get into a directed session or on set it is going to become painfully clear that something is missing. If the director in a VO session says “Let’s do a pick up at 1:10, and you have not helped them understand what a pick up is, they will be dumbfounded (and possibly look unprofessional or unprepared). If an actor is on set early in their career and the director yells “Cut, first positions” that new actor may stand there with a deer in the headlights look, instead of returning to his (or her, or their) starting point to retake the scene. That’s just not helpful.
So, don’t dumb it down
It can be frustrating trying to explain your industry to someone new or inexperienced. I get that. But “dumbing down” the information serves to hurt them rather than help. Better to direct that person to someone who can help them without oversimplifying rather than “help” them in a way that is not helpful!