Making complicated things simple

I had a journalism professor in college who liked to lecture us about the way cops spoke at press briefings. It drove him crazy that they used words such as perpetrator, object, and inflict.

I had a journalism professor in college who liked to lecture us about the way cops spoke at press briefings. It drove him crazy that they used words such as perpetrator, object, and inflict.

As in: "The perpetrator utilized an object to infiltrate the obstructed entrance with the intent to inflict harm on the intended victim," instead of "he broke the door down with a bat to attack the person inside."

It made my professor mad because he felt they were complicating an otherwise straightforward event, which he had to summarize and report on, usually within a tight deadline.

I've had similar experiences with corporate executives. At Nissan, we had a manager who thought that big words made him sound smarter. He would sprinkle his conversation with tidbits such as cogitate, disadvantageous, and over leverage. In more recent years I worked with someone who liked to use sub-optimize and codify a lot.

Throughout my career I have come across people who I simply couldn't understand. Sometimes it was because the issue they were discussing was deeply complex, and sometimes it was because they used arcane language.

When I was young, I thought these people were smarter than me, and that the subjects they were addressing were too complicated to understand.

But I've learned that the opposite is often true - sometimes the smartest people can simplify a really complicated subject.

This realization came to me during a major crisis early in my career. An investigative TV show was developing a segment about alleged safety defects on some of our Nissan products. We knew the producers had been interviewing dealers and customers, but we were not sure what exactly their angle was.

We decided to engage the legendary crisis communications expert John Scanlon, who had defended CBS when it was sued for libel by General William Westmoreland in a highly publicized case in the 1980s. I went to New York with our head of engineering to meet with Scanlon and brief him on the crisis. He was a gruff, plain-talking Irishman and I was both intimidated and in awe as we began our meeting. I did not know what to expect, but I was sure whatever he said would be brilliant and I would learn from it.

My colleague and I began delving into the technical issues associated with the alleged safety defects, the possible theories that the producers might be working on, and why we felt each of these approaches were scientifically unsound or implausible.

About 30 minutes into the presentation, Scanlon interrupted us. I couldn't wait to hear what profound insight he would offer.

"Guys, guys," he said, "you are boring the hell out of me. There has to be something more compelling than this."

I was stupefied. He sounded more like a high school friend than a crisis guru who charged $750 an hour. But as he probed, I understood his genius. He was trying to get us to simplify our message, make us less corporate, more human. And he did not want us to sound condescending.

I learned a lot from that incident. It gave me the confidence to ask simple questions and not worry that people might think I'm not smart enough to understand the issues. I also grew less impressed with people who used big words, and I began to understand that the highest value I could add would be in simplifying a complex situation.

Scanlon taught me that the real art of communications is making complicated things simple.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at

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