The End of ‘Dumbing it Down’: How to Smarten Strategic Communications

A businessman demonstrates his idea by holding half of a virtual lightbulb and his brain on a versual.

Who hasn’t had someone look over their shoulder as they’re working on a press release, social media post or other communications product and gotten the friendly advice, “Wow, you need to dumb that down for this audience”?

The maxim is as misguided as it is ubiquitous. Communications professionals frequently have to provide complex or technical information to lay audiences in ways that resonate and motivate. However, “dumbing down” your communications is a surefire recipe for failure. Your audiences feel talked down to at best and patronized at worst. And you are not happy because you feel like you’re devaluing your own work.

There’s a better way. Don’t dumb it down; instead, take some time to smarten it up.

The Numbers Can’t Speak for Themselves

From a communications perspective, one of the worst things you can do is release numbers without context. But even more egregious is releasing numbers with the wrong context.

Case in point: The radio show Marketplace does a great job of smartening up the day’s economic news. Until they get to the numbers, where they report fractions of a percent in market changes backed by really happy, really sad or swing music. Doing so bends the news, and fetishizes the role of the stock market in our economy.

Along the same lines, you’ve had the saying, “Show, don’t tell” drilled into you, but with difficult information, it’s important to do both. Even with the best data visualization chops, it’s often nearly impossible to give a complete picture with images alone.

Plus, explaining your work lets the audience know you believe they’re smart enough to get the difficult concept you’re communicating.


Lean into Complexity — And Uncertainty

A lot of COVID-19 communications is a great case study in trying so hard to do the right thing, getting so close, and yet coming up short, like when the White House buried detailed CDC advice on reopening.

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, there’s been a plethora of complex information distilled in very smart ways. What oftentimes hasn’t always gone well, however, is communicating the uncertainty. It’s understandable that you don’t want to muddle the message by suggesting there’s a chance that sound public health strategies aren’t 100% effective. But by not doing so, you create a communications vacuum.

And as with any vacuum, something’s going to fill it. In this case, it’s often been deadly misinformation peddled either by those who don’t know any better or by those who do but see political or financial gains to be had.


Tell Your Story

One of the best tools for smartening things up is good storytelling.

Pretty much everyone these days has a handle on the basics: Make sure you have a narrative arc, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Focus on a protagonist — the hero of the story, whether it's a person, product or idea. Channel Aristotle: cover the bases of pathos, feelings and emotions; logos, facts and logic; and ethos, beliefs and values. But above all, remember that an effective story is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

From a strategic communications perspective, the story has to be driving toward a conclusion you want your audience to make that advances something you’re trying to achieve. In fact, oftentimes it’s best to start with your ending. While this might seem inauthentic, or even manipulative, it’s critical to keeping things smart. Otherwise, we might as well just be swapping tales around the campfire.


Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Finally, remember where people are coming from, especially in today’s polarized communications landscape. Although sometimes our audiences seem impossibly broad, most of the time we’re not targeting the “general public,” and even when we are, we’re micro-targeting them to get the right messages into the right hands.

Do at least rudimentary research so you can be your audience. You might be surprised to see just how smart you are.

Scott Ward is principal of Fifth Estate Communications.