Consider the difference between “dumbing down” and “leaving out irrelevant context”. They look a alike. However, the difference is in what matters to the person you are talking to.

  • When you “dumb something down” (also known as simplifying), you leave out complicated but relevant information. The details get in the way because the person you are talking to does not (yet?) have the experience/mental scaffolding. Take, for example, the art of enjoying a fine wine. Try to discuss with a neophyte the subtleties of scent and flavor that give each wine its distinct character, or how soil, climate, and a myriad of other conditions affect the grapes that go into each wine. Before you can even talk about it, you have to teach it. Such an education can easily take months to years, and we’re just talking about wine.
  • When you “leave out irrelevant context”, you leave out complicated information because it doesn’t matter. Sticking with the wine metaphor, when an unskilled wine drinker asks, “What drink goes best with this dish?”, that person may not care at all about the subtleties required to answer the question as long as the meal has a good glass of wine to go with it.

This is the challenge of every expert. When talking to someone who is not already skilled in the art, there are times when the details matter. Then you will have to find the balance between teaching and “dumbing down” (simplifying) that gets the idea across. When the details don’t matter, the challenge is to figure out which details don’t matter and to leave them out as needless chatter.

I struggle with this art, sometimes daily. Sometimes I succeed.

About D. J. Carmen

Software developer, fire spinner, musician, occasional artist, and wandering soul. Depending on the day, you may find me working on my latest project, walking about the park, or skipping stones by the river.
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