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It Can Be Smart to Dumb Things Down

Keeping your message simple helps mobilize people in support of your goals.

To explain the power of simplicity, Daniel Kahneman—in his oft-cited book Thinking, Fast and Slow—describes two mental systems that work together to drive decision-making and behavior. The intuitive system dominates the mental process. Intuition kicks in automatically, in response to a new stimulus or situation—generating first impressions, gut reactions, snap judgments, and emotional impulses. The cognitive system performs what we call reasoning: weighing alternatives, searching memory for data, processing information, contemplating outcomes, and calculating costs and benefits.

Most people believe that we are guided entirely by reason, but Kahneman describes how intuition and emotion actually dominate most of our mental processes. Cognition comes into play only when we need to “think through” a situation. Cognition requires attention and effort, which drains people of mental energy. When faced with complex mental tasks, people lose focus and stop paying attention. So you must really care about an issue to “stop and think” about it.

What does that mean for social change leaders?

Because of misperceptions about the way people think, many leaders rely on reason to persuade others, ignoring or misunderstanding the primary role of intuition. Purely cognitive approaches—those void of intuition and emotion—can waste time and resources on communications that won’t work. 

Furthermore, “Fluency theory” holds that if people can easily comprehend ideas or information, they are more likely to believe they are true. Anything that inhibits fluent mental processing impedes understanding and trust. Taxing people’s limited store of mental energy can also de-motivate them: Throwing unfamiliar words or complex data at people distracts the brain, as it searches “working memory” and attempts to process that new information. As we mentioned above, people literally stop listening—and miss the whole point. Most won’t invest the energy to figure it out. “Dumbing things down”—in effect, simplifying your message—isn’t just about helping people understand the message. To facilitate fluency, you must avoid jargon and complicated data.

This poses a challenge for experts, who tend to use jargon and data to persuade. If you want to connect with non-experts, you must translate your professional lingo into simple, intuitive statements using everyday language, and select data that explain the situation in a new and meaningful way.

To be motivated for your cause, people must imagine an inspirational goal and understand the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving it. For years, leaders have been told to motivate people with the “power of positive thinking.” But studies show that people actually spend less energy trying to reach a goal if they picture only the rosy outcome. The best way to avoid that dynamic is to offer a vision of a desired future, explain the challenges that must be tackled to achieve the vision, and show how those challenges can be overcome.

Narratives allow you to do that. The most basic narrative structure involves a protagonist seeking to achieve a goal, who must overcome obstacles to achieve it.

Organizations can use narrative structure to develop a message about the people they want to motivate, the problem they face in realizing their own goals, and the solutions you offer to help them overcome the problem (see diagram).

This structure allows you to communicate with maximum motivating power. It 1) puts your audience—and their hopes and values—front-and-center in the message, 2) positions the problem you’re tackling as an obstacle to people’s aspirations, which makes it personally relevant, and 3) shows how the solutions you offer help people achieve their goals.

Narrative helps achieve impact

In 2009, when the nation was reeling from the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression, a client asked us to develop a narrative about what happened that organizations could use to advocate for financial reform. Our research team analyzed media coverage, Congressional testimony, and other content that defined the national dialogue to learn how policymakers and influencers were framing the debate. We found that the dominant narrative about the financial crisis placed the blame on homebuyers who obtained mortgages they couldn’t afford. This narrative took the focus off of actors in the financial industry, who wrote bad loans and hid the risk from investors. Policymakers in Washington said this “blame-the-consumers” narrative raised a serious obstacle to meaningful reform of the financial system.

We used this simple narrative structure to reframe the debate with the following ideas:

People: Our protagonists were responsible, hardworking Americans who lost their homes and life savings. (Most Americans will relate to “hardworking” people, and sympathize with their loss.)

Goals: Their goal was to own a home and achieve the American Dream. (Most Americans share these goals, so the narrative is relevant to their own aspirations in life.)

Problem: Fast-talking mortgage brokers tricked people into high-priced mortgages they would have trouble paying off, and Wall Street speculators hid that risk from investors who bought portfolios of mortgages. (Putting people in the picture made it easier to understand the problem and put the focus on the actors whose behavior needed to be regulated.)

Solution: Stronger consumer protections and effective regulations will enable people to buy homes with confidence—and create a more stable financial system that can supply capital to grow the economy. (The message about the solution focuses on benefits to individuals and to society at large.)

We funneled these narrative elements into a one-minute message about the financial crisis, and backed it up with individual stories and supporting data. This provided the core content for an in-depth “message manual” and toolkit used by a coalition of advocacy organizations, and helped win the passage of landmark financial reform legislation.

A narrative approach goes a long way in helping people care about your topic, because they see its relevance in their lives. It also enables them to intuitively understand the problems and solutions you address. You can apply this basic structure to any topic—backed by strategically selected facts and figures that surprise the audience—and harness the power of narrative to make your message more meaningful and effective.

To learn more about the art and science of storytelling, watch this video.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Enrique Mendizabal

    ON June 5, 2013 08:09 AM

    But is this really dumbing down? I think that by developing a narrative you retain the complexity of the issue/process while communicate your message effectively.

    Dumbing down -really dumbing down- can be a problem. The unintended consequence is that by reducing complex matters into simpler ‘bullet-pointed- issues we may be dumbing down the audience. in other words, if a researcher filters out all the complexity when communicating with a policymaker or a journalist it may get its message across but this message may not be accurate nor may go far. When the policymaker, armed with a new simple ‘to-do’, faces the complex reality of the problem it attempts to solve it may not have the necessary capacity to grasp all that complexity, nor the ability to adapt its actions. The simple message will leave him/her ill equipped to face reality.

    I wrote about this a few years ago in my previous work. Think tanks in the UK I felt were dumbing down international development policymakers by simplifying complex problems -simply because they wanted to be able to claim influence. The consequence was that policymakers were less knowledgeable about the problems they were charged with solving: http://www.odi.org.uk/opinion/4935-dumbing-down-audience

  • BY Milano Harden

    ON November 10, 2013 11:41 AM

    LOVE this thinking, and I also think there is a bit of a solution-problem mismatch here (creating solutions that don’t actually map well against a problem’s deeper roots).  Ironically, many social challenges/opportunities - education, health, employment - are fairly complex.  Of course, they often may some simpler aspects and potential for ‘small wins’, but they simultaneously also have many ‘wicked edges’ and complex roots.  Seems like we need some good ole BOTH/AND thinking. At the early stages of mobilization, these kind of simple, consensus building frameworks are key to getting going.  At the same time,  we also have to evolve leaders with the creative, adaptive and motivational competence to enlist new stakeholders for the other ‘hard work - the difficult middle’ that over time will yield sustainable progress. I agree with Hattaway and his colleague that communicating issues in their fundamental simplicity is critical. I also think this approach will over time start to yield diminishing returns.

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