Don’t Dumb It Down

Christopher Witt —  July 23, 2012

Clarify to Avoid ConfusionTechnical experts sometimes think that they have to dumb down their material.

They often confuse their audiences by presenting too much information and too many details, using PowerPoint slides that are too complicated.

And when you confuse your audience, you lose them.

People will try to understand what you’re talking about…to a point. And then, if you continue to confuse them, they stop listening. And they stop caring about you and what you want of them. They get frustrated, and maybe even angry, because you’ve wasted their time.

The problem is, you’re often presenting complex, even sophisticated information to people who may be smart and highly skilled, but not in your field. They don’t have your background, your knowledge, your technical experience and expertise. Yet you still need their cooperation and, sometimes, their support.

Confronted with this situation, you may be tempted to “dumb down” your material. Dumbing down usually involves over-simplifying ideas. It makes you feel as if you’ve done an injustice to your idea, and it makes your audience feel patronized.

DUMB DOWN: to lower the level of difficulty and the intellectual content of (as a textbook); also: to lower the general level of intelligence in <the dumbing down of society> – Merriam-Webster

The antidote to confusing your audience isn’t to dumb down your material. The antidote is to clarify it.

7 Ways to Clarify Technical Material without Dumbing It Down

  1. Define your terms and acronyms.
  2. Begin with the conclusion.
    Don’t lead off by presenting all of the evidence (usually too much) and then drawing your conclusion. (That’s the basis of doing good science, not of making a good presentation.) State your conclusion; then follow up with enough — not too much — evidence to support that conclusion.
  3. Make additional information available…off-line.
    You can distribute support material, as much as you want, before your presentation or following it. Or you can make it available as an appendix at the end of your presentation. Just don’t feel the need to review it all during your presentation.
  4. Break complex material down into smaller parts.
    “Complex,” by definition, means “to be made up of interrelated parts.” So make complex material clearer by bringing it down into its various components and explaining them one by one.
  5. Make use of Q&A.
    After talking for 8 to 10 minutes, take a break. Ask, “What questions do you have?” Doing so allows your audience to organize their thoughts. And it lets you check for how well they understand what you said. Getting a lot of (intelligent) questions is a good thing. If people don’t ask any questions, it’s usually because they’re so confused they don’t even know where to begin or because they don’t care. Neither of which is a good thing.
  6. Demonstrate.
    Show and tell worked for kids in kindergarten. It works for adults. Demonstrate your product, process, or procedure, explaining each step or component as you go along. Even better: let them use it.
  7. Repeat.
    People don’t listen well. They phase in and out as you’re speaking. So repeat your main points. Tell people what you’re going to say. Say it. Then summarize what you’ve said.

Don’t dumb down your material. Clarify it.



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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

4 responses to Don’t Dumb It Down

  1. It’s not obvious for an engineer to present a complex research topic, and to cover the necessary technical details while keeping the undivided attention of an (often mixed) audience.
    See also my blog post on

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