Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Big ideas don't need big words. But where can you find the small ones?

When I train scientists, I often pull someone out of the audience to share three points about her research. The goal is to say them in ways a non-scientist can understand. One wildlife biologist talked about animals invading a condo development that used to be their habitat. What kind of animals? Turns out they were all "charismatic megafauna."

I told the group that's what we call members of Congress, here in Washington. But what did the biologist mean? Charismatic megafauna is an eight-syllable term for well-known, easy-to-name, popular wildlife species--pandas, bald eagles, whales. In this case, it meant mountain lions, salamanders and several species of birds--so we went with those names, instead.

We embroider our ideas with language, yet you don't need complex words for complex thoughts. As my friend and fellow speaker coach Peter Botting likes to say, "Big ideas don't need big words." If your professional vocabulary is complex, how do you find small words for your big ideas?

Science communicator Sally James shares the Up-Goer Five Text Editor as one solution. The online engine contains the 1,000 most commonly used words. Guess what? They're not at all complex, so much so that "1,000" is not a word on the list. Up-Goer translates that to "ten hundred." A cloud becomes a "rain-holding sky thing." The "up-goer?" A rocket ship. James's Ignite! talk, with its limit of five minutes and 20 slides, suits the subject. In the video below, she describes how a University of Washington researcher wrestled her scientific work into smaller words using Up-Goer. Frustrating at first, but ultimately, a process that yielded insights.

Simple words hold power. Hemingway knew that. You can put the opening paragraph of The Old Man and The Sea into the Up-goer handily, with the exception of the word "permanent." Translation sometimes achieves the same thing. John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights took the archaic and elaborate language of Malory's legend and put it into "plain, present-day speech." The spare and honest language dances and sings. Steinbeck then reversed the process, writing a dedication in the old style to knight his sister, so often relegated to lesser status in childhood battles--a gem polished by the contrast.

James concludes, "The most complicated big things are best explained using ordinary words." But Up-Goer rejects "complicated" and "ordinary." Let's just say again that "Big ideas don't need big words," which passes the Up-Goer test with flying colors.

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