The Value of Clarity

One part of the language that always gets a bit of a bum rap is jargon. Everyone hates jargon. It’s easy to say we should just rid of it completely. The problem is that jargon actually serves a purpose. When a group of people share an interest in a topic, they develop a vocabulary to describe it. In doing so, they develop precise meanings for words and phrases which enables them to communicate ideas more effectively. These words and phrases are jargon. But within the community, they are just the way that people communicate.

The problems with jargon start when someone within the group has to talk about the topic with people outside of the group. It’s easy to forget that the meanings of the words and phrases used within the group aren’t clear to everyone. Furthermore, it’s easy to make the mistake of using jargon to show that you have some expertise, and that you know something.

The problem for innovators is that we have to get our ideas to spread. That means that we have to explain them in ways that everyone can understand. There is a great example of this in Danny Hillis’ article describing the work that Richard Feynman did in Thinking Machines, the company that Hillis put together to make parallel processing computers:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. “Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” Or, “Forget all that `local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.” Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

Actually, I doubt that it was “progress” that most interested Richard. He was always searching for patterns, for connections, for a new way of looking at something, but I suspect his motivation was not so much to understand the world as it was to find new ideas to explain. The act of discovery was not complete for him until he had taught it to someone else.

It’s a wonderful article, and you should read all of it. But these quotes are great at showing what you have to do once you have a great idea – it’s not enough just to have it, you also have to get it spread. To do that, you need to be as clear as possible when you explain it to people.

Jargon has its place, and it can be useful when you trying to spread the idea among experts. But when you are talking about your ideas with everyone else, you have to translate the jargon. If you can’t do that, you might not understand the idea as well as you think you do.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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3 thoughts on “The Value of Clarity

  1. I’m all for clarity, though not always successful in practicing it in my own communications. I think sometimes it is essential to bring in an “outsider” in order to ensure that an idea is expressed in a way that is understandable. Of course, Feynman was hardly an “outsider” with respect to complex systems, but I think he was a singleton in many ways.

    I heard an interesting and related story on National Public Radio yesterday – Justice Stevens: An Open Mind On a Changed Court – in which Nina Totenberg was interviewing recently retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens. Among the many gems on the value of clarity (through writing) he shared was the following:

    “It’s just part of the job where you take the cases one at a time,” he says, “and I have found very often, I’m surprised [that] the result I come out with is not necessarily what I assumed in advance.”

    For Stevens, writing the first drafts of his opinions himself, instead of delegating the task to law clerks as many of his colleagues do, helped with that process. In writing it out, Stevens says, “your reasoning will either make sense or it won’t. And if it doesn’t, you change your vote, or you change your whole approach.”

  2. That’s a great quote from Stevens Joe. I think it shows that the path to clarity is often complex. I’m the same in that writing often helps me figure out what I actually think about something (one of the huge benefits of blogging).

    I agree that getting outside perspectives can provide a valuable contribution as well.

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