If Stephen Hawking can do it, so can you

“I will not dumb it down!” is a common exclamation I hear when I’m working with technical and scientific professionals, helping them become more effective communicators. The reality is, ‘dumbing it down’ is the last thing I want anyone to do when it comes to communicating complex technical information.

I have a soft spot for techies. Most of my career has been spent working with very smart people, helping them communicate highly technical information to non-technical audiences. Sometimes, technical types can get a bit too esoteric and when they do, they miss valuable communication opportunities.

I was at Caltech last week for meetings with one of my favourite long-time clients and had the amazing opportunity of seeing Stephen Hawking give his lecture on ‘The Origin of the Universe’ (similar to this lecture he gave in 2005). Professor Hawking is considered one of the smartest people in the world alive today for his ‘ground-breaking research in theoretical physics’ and helping ‘mere mortals understand the universe.’

Many of the technical and scientific presenters I work with start off with huge slide decks, not believing it’s possible for their audiences to understand the points they are trying to make, without sharing all the background information they possess. They forget it’s taken them years to amass this knowledge. But they try to share it all, spending what little time they have, talking fast, jumping from idea to idea, leaving confusion in the minds of their audiences, rather than coherent conclusions.

Do you need to know how a computer chip was developed to know it is fast? Do you need to know the secret formula for Coke to know it tastes great? No, you don’t. And in most cases, your audience will not need to know each detail of your research to understand its conclusions and implications.

I think it’s safe to say my brain isn’t wired for theoretical physics. And, I didn’t understand everything Hawking talked about in his lecture. But, I am an intelligent being, able to listen and comprehend complex content, even if it falls outside of the scope of my education and interests (in a universe far, far away).

Hawking is considered one of the smartest people alive today because he’s a scientific genius AND a good communicator. And that’s not even getting into the practical aspects of how he is able to communicate.

What’s important here is that, despite my intellectual limitations along the space-time continuum, I understood what Hawking was talking about, and remained interested and engaged throughout his entire lecture. Hawking didn’t ‘dumb it down’ for me or anyone else, nor did he go completely overboard and lose me in a black hole of scientific detail.

Instead, Hawking took very complex ideas and concepts and distilled them into compelling and manageable chunks of information we could digest. His slides were visual; he used humour; he had clear key messages; and he managed to explain the origins of the universe in under an hour.

So, no excuses the next time you are preparing to give a technical presentation or write a scientific report. If one of the smartest people in the world can hone his focus and deliver a memorable presentation that resonates, so can you. And, if you’re really stuck, email me.

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