Right-Size Your Content: Lessons I Learned From Ira Flatow

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“There are some details that are important to some but may be beyond the understanding of me or other people,” Ira Flatow, author and host of the popular NPR radio program Science Friday explained to me in a phone interview. And there’s nothing wrong with that he says.  People with big ideas often give too much information … and this can paralyze audiences, rather than excite them. Are you right-sizing the information you’re communicating?

Sometimes you have to leave out details. One of the reasons scientists, engineers and other big idea generators don’t always succeed in generating excitement about new discoveries or innovations is that they often bog down audiences with too much information. Give them too much detail and they’ll miss seeing the big picture.

In my work with clients, especially folks in science, technology and law, I see this all the time. If you’re a specialist discussing a complicated topic you may feel compelled to share every glorious detail with the world. But please restrain yourself. Perhaps it’s the sheer joy you get from doing your work or the thrill you’ve experienced by making a new discovery, but hold back. If you are one of the scientists, economists, lawyers, or other professionals lucky enough to be engaged in a project that you’re passionate about… great. But remember, not everyone is going to be interested in the same level of detail you find exciting.

Flatow’s program Science Friday 1.3 million global listeners tune in each week for a broadcast that piques their curiosity about a broad range of topics in science and technology. Part of the broadcast’s success, notes Flatow, is that they don’t drill down so deeply into topics so their discussions become boring or too taxing to the majority of their listenership – intellectually curious people.

Like his radio show, Flatow’s book, Present at the Future is filled with great examples of challenging topics made easier-to-understand by avoiding minutiae and focusing on big picture ideas instead. He offers welcoming discussions on “difficult” subjects like cosmology and grey matter in physics that lead you to an “aha” point of understanding.   You don’t have to have a PhD in engineering to comprehend his chapter on nanotechnology, for example. Flatow introduces this topic by explaining the origin of the term, offers a brief historical overview to put the subject in context, then continues to explain nanotechnology while presenting the benefits associated with this new field. He describes how nanotechnology can revolutionize electronics by shrinking a computer chip down to the size of a single molecule or how bionanotechnology can be useful in medicine by helping doctors detect a virus in real-time. That’s the kind of information enthusiasts want to know about. By omitting potentially tiresome discussion on the inner workings of nanotechnology, and focusing instead on its benefits, he is engaging his audience with meaningful information.

Flatow’s advice to scientists and technologists is to go ahead and savor the beauty of the details you see in your subject, just don’t think everyone else needs or wants to experience it at the same granular level.   “If you look at a flower you see the beautiful petals, you see the gorgeous colors… it’s just a beautiful thing of nature. But a scientist or someone interested in nature who studies the actual structure of the petals, the cells, the pigments and the mathematical progression of the petals… they’ll have a different joy of the flower than someone who enjoys it just for its natural beauty. You can see a whole different kind of structural beauty that makes it more fascinating.”

I’m a big believer in “knowing thy audience.” Ultimately the solution to making challenging content manageable to non-technical audiences is to know who they are and what they need from you. Sadly, too many professionals don’t understand this basic rule of communication. Don’t be one of them!

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