Dumbing it down – it was a topic that came up quite frequently in 2019 as something NOT to do in your effort toward better communications.

2019 – The Year of Communications

Communications as a topic is always important to us. Conversations come up about how to best communicate our project work. That’s true whether we’re the project manager, a business analyst, or a technical person.

The most recent thing I’ve done was consult with a project on its change management plan,. It’s a topic which was basically all about communicating what, when and to whom, for the most part.

In any case, it seemed as if most of 2019 was spent with people stating they need good communicators and with me then explaining to them why I think that’s me.

At one point, I even wrote tips for better communications for system administrators. Once, again, even technical people are expected to be good communicators. In any case, those tips are useful for people besides merely system administrators. You can read more on this post in the Red Hat blog for 7 Tips for Sysadmins to Improve Communication Skills.

“Appropriate” Communications for Various “Audiences”

When I was in high school, we were all required to take one semester of “Speech.” This course required us to get up and, well, speak. Anyway, one of the key concepts was the issue that you have to communicate with your audience in an appropriate manner. Your peers might like to hear about the finer points of popular music. But your coworkers probably want to hear about what work you’ve done. In each case, you have to adjust the language you use and the formality of the presentation. These are just two of many factors you adjust based on your audience.

Over the years, every course, workshop or presentation I’ve attended on communicating has mentioned this.Whether it had to do with writing or speaking, that issue came up. And, let’s be honest, everyone reading this blog already knows this. When you’re in a hurry, you might forget to do it, but you do know you have to do it.

How “Dumbing it Down” Came Up

First of all, most of us have heard the phrase “dumbing it down” at one point or another. However, I’d been listening to someone tell me how absolutely impossible it was to communicate with their users. They kept telling me how “dumb” those users were. I felt the need to provide a clever response to that but what came out was something more like, “Ummm…” I could tell it was a situation where I wasn’t supposed to disagree but, honestly, couldn’t bring myself to agree.

In any case, in listening to the exchanges between the team and the users, it became clear to the outsider (I mean me) that the team was using the approach of “dumbing it down.” It also seemed clear that the users resented it (and do you blame them?). Plus, it didn’t address the fact that it wasn’t a matter of “dumbing it down.” The actual problem was that the explanations weren’t clear. They weren’t clear(even to me, the expert. I didn’t even understand what they were trying to say.

Why I Started Using the Term “Dumbing it Down”

This situation stuck in my mind. This memory was so vivid that, the next time someone came to me for me to justify my approach to “good communications,” here is approximately what I said:

“My approach to communications is to understand that there are many layers of people I will work with. The upper managers was a brief explanation about high-level issues and without a lot of technical language. The users want to hear from me how what we’re doing relates to their work. They want it in a language that specifically relates to what they’re doing. My peers want technical details from me. They want me to use all the correct technical terms in order to retain their confidence in my expertise. In all of this, it’s never about “dumbing it down.” Instead, it’s about rising to the challenge that communications vary among all the groups that I have to communicate with. It’s a hard job, and one that requires constant adjustments. However, it’s part of my job and I’m committed to it.”

Repeating Myself

Then, for some reason, 2019 was the year where so many people asked me about my communications skills. As such, I ended up repeating this, quite a number of times throughout 2019. Seriously, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written or said that above paragraph.

2019 might have been the year that projects finally made a habit of specifically finding team members who were willing and able to work toward great communications. Honestly, I have no idea why this topic came up so often and in so many places. In fact, it wasn’t merely the Red Hat article to which I contributed. Actually, it was also to a number o other places where I gave communication tips for articles, newsletters, blogs, and other such items.

Out With 2019?

I could right now say something about how we should leave “dumbing it down” back in 2019 with the old year. However, that would make it sound as if “dumbing it down” had been something people had been doing in 2019. Maybe a few were. But “dumbing it down” hasn’t ever been a good idea. Most of us have always known that.

Hopefully, those of us who know that and practice better habits than that can avoid the projects and jobs that think otherwise. We could flatter ourselves that we’d be the good influence and promote change. However, I think most of us know that entrenched behavior doesn’t change unless the project supports change is supported. That situation doesn’t always occur.


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