Resisting the Urge to Dumb it Down

As I write this post, I’m listening to the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving channel on Pandora. It’s lovely. Since I have the free account, the music is occasionally interrupted by a commercial. I usually don’t notice them but one just played promising massive savings on prescription medications, a market that is relevant to me, my business, and this post. The advertisement was brief, perhaps 15-20 seconds, and got right to the point of trying to capture my attention promising simplicity, convenience, and amazing savings. Knowing the space, I laughed out loud as I considered all of the unspoken details, exceptions, and hoops that made it not-so-simple. I recognized it as too simple to be true. At least, true for everyone.

Of course, the brief message was intended to “hook” the listener just enough so that they would spend some time check it out. I suppose the tactics are working as I hear the ads and see the billboards for this particular company. They are spending a lot of money to reach those consumers who might be interested in their service and convincing them that this effective, simple-to-use service, will solve the consumer’s problem.

For those of us working in business, much of our time is spent trying to convince others to buy our products or services. To this end, we’re always looking for ways to simplify our messaging so that others “get it.” We have to, right? If we can’t break through the noise, distractions, and barriers, we can’t generate revenue and that is bad news for the business.

But it’s not just businesses that play this game, we’re all playing it in various ways. individuals applying for jobs try to “net it out” to get the attention of would-be employers. Charities pitch their do-good value so that people will donate. Political parties want to capture voters by presenting simple platforms that appeal to their priorities, often avoiding the less complex or controversial issues for a particular demographic. Heck, even our kids are doing it as they try to convince us of the importance of that thing they want to have or do by simplifying its benefits and avoiding the stickier issues – messaging is everything.

Broadly speaking, most of what comes at us is part the world’s quest for the lowest common denominator – that happy place where the broadest possible group is able to comprehend the simplest version of whatever it is we are pitching. Think of the last time you met someone and tried to explain to them what you do, what words did you use? I’m in sales. I’m a dentist. I’m a stay-at-home mom. I’m a truck driver. I’m a nurse. I’m a teacher. Those generically broad buckets may be true but they miss the profoundly beautiful complexities of each of those roles. We dumb it down to make it easier for our listener.

I know, I know, it makes no sense to go into the gory details in a brief encounter. Who cares, right? After all, we should only focus what we say on our audience. Always our audience. What do they care about? What matters to them? Nobody likes the boorish, self-absorbed, narcissist who only talks about themselves.

The irony in all of this is that true connection can really only occur in the complexity. “But wait,” you might say, “nobody cares about the details.” Therein lies the dichotomy. We can’t connect unless we go deep and, yet, no one wants to invest the time or attention to go deep. Until they do.

Most messaging is designed to interrupt, get attention, and hook. We hope for something deeper along the way. Obviously, meaningful connection takes time and we just have to get someone engaged enough to spend the time needed to connect on our message. Some encounters are worth more than others.

Perhaps mass messaging is important for social causes and political campaigns, but most of us live in the world of niches. Niche products, services, and relationships. The truth isn’t always simple. The simple isn’t always true.

What has happened in our persistent quest for the lowest common denominator? What has our focus on broad reach, broad understanding, and broad acceptance done for our ability to connect? The result is often the sacrifice of beautiful complexity and sophistication for the bland, a place where true connection cannot exist.

Ours is a world of communities-of-interest. We want bespoke products, services, relationships, experiences, interactions, and content. Simplification for the sake of the broader world is a mistake when you need a deeper, more meaningful, connection with the select few who really need to get it. Those people don’t want trite slogans, they want to know you understand, your’ve thought deeply about their challenges and opportunities, and that you’re prepared to take them somewhere new.

We need to build bridges with the few at the right time. We need to avoid the urge toward me-too and boldly claim the different. What we have to say won’t resonate with everyone all the time…and that is good. We need to resonate, to fit, with the right people at the right time. Want stickiness? in relationships? In deals? In success? Then go deep. Don’t seek to add complexity but don’t dumb it down. Don’t undersell yourself. Don’t remove all of the deep, compelling, sophistication of what you offer to fit-in with whatever small frame of reference someone is trying to apply to you, your product, your company, or your purpose.

Often the winding road of communicating our value, message, meaning, or purpose presents subtle follow-the-signs moments. Someone just isn’t getting it? Perhaps he or she is the wrong person. Spending way too much time negotiating a deal? Perhaps it’s the wrong deal. Finding barrier after barrier after barrier in pulling something together? Maybe you’ve tipped from the complex to the complicated. There is often a smooth flow to the right relationship, deal, or opportunity. It doesn’t mean that it is simple. It just means that it works – it is beautifully straightforward despite its complexity.

Things don’t have to always be complex, but they often are and we need to get comfortable with navigating those depths. Our world is a massive ocean of possibilities with endless choices to be made. So many destinations. So many people. So many ideas. No, we cannot pursue them all, respond to them all, or even consider them all. But that doesn’t lessen their value, beauty, or truth. The same goes for who we are, what we offer, and how we communicate. When we dumb it down to cut through the noise, we lose something. When we simplify to the point of blandness in the hope of catching someone’s attention or fitting into the box they’ve created, we’ve betrayed our beautiful singularity and compromised our value. You are not for everyone and that is ok. Ours is not a zero-sum world and there are many, many places to win. Don’t give-in to the lie that there aren’t.

Yes, please simplify where possible. Net it out. Get to the point. However, don’t sacrifice beautiful complexity and sophistication for a bland version of your message, concept, or self so that you might appeal to as many others as possible. Real connection occurs at a different level and it is worth the time and effort to get there. Everything else is glossy, passing, and easily forgotten. The truth isn’t always simple. The simple isn’t always true.

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