I asked the
boy (he was 14 years old) what he really wanted to do while
he was in my house. "I want to take a hot running shower,"
he replied. This, of course, was not just a luxury in his
home village; it was not even a possibility. A shower there
meant filling a jerry can with water, heating it on an open
fire, then pouring it over your head.
We had some friends near by we wanted to visit. I took the
boy into the bathroom and meticulously showed him how to regulate
the butane tank (no central heating in my house), how to adjust
the temperature and water flow, how to position the shower
head, etc. "Now, when you are finished, I want you turn
everything off and go to go to bed," I said. We then
set off down the road.
About a half hour later, I thought it a good idea come back
and check up on him. I went into the bathroom and I was pleased
to see that he had correctly turned off both the water and
the butane exactly as I had shown him. The light was still
on in his room, so I went over to say goodnight. When I opened
the door, I saw this poor kid lying on the bed with his hands
over his eyes trying to sleep.
Then it hit me. I had shown everything to him except the most
obvious - how to turn off the light! He of course knew about
electric lights, theoretically, but he had never actually
seen one. His experience was with kerosene lanterns, which
you turn off by blowing out the flame. If you have never actually
used an electric light, there is no obvious connection between
that button on the wall and that brilliant bulb on the ceiling.
The poor kid simply didn't have a clue. More importantly,
I simply didn't have a clue either. As meticulous as I thought
I had been, it just never occurred to me that I had failed
to give him adequate instructions.
I had a number of such experiences in Tanzania, none of which
had anything to do with lack of intelligence. Because of fierce
competition to get into school in the first place (the country
hardly had any schools), these students were not just intelligent,
they were the cream of the crop.
Simplification Isn't "Dumbing-down"
once said: "Nothing is so simple that it can't
be misunderstood." I have always tried to live
by this maxim, with my experiences in Tanzania as a
constant reminder to simplify to the extreme. But the
objection can be raised: "Isn't aiming at the
lowest common denominator patronizing?"
Yes it is, but mainly in the mind of the writer, not
the reader. The fact is, no matter how hard you try,
you can never know for certain what each individual
reader knows and doesn't know about your topic. What
you can know for certain is that if you say something
they don't understand, you will lose some (if not all)
of their attention.
It is of course
necessary to make some assumptions about your readers' level
of understanding. However, you should make as few as possible.
Those readers who are already knowledgeable about what a particular
section of text is saying will either skip it or appreciate
the reminder. Those who are less knowledgeable will be grateful
for your clear explanation.
Throughout my 40-year career as a professional writer, I have
produced press releases, sales brochures, speeches, instruction
manuals, training programs, etc. I can recall no occasion
where someone complained that my text was "too simple".
However, I distinctly recall several occasions where someone
said, "I thought this subject would be extremely difficult,
but I understood everything you wrote. How did you do it?"
Now you know; it was by aiming for the lowest common denominator
- and then some.