Stop Explaining Things: On Supercommunicator by Frank J. Pietrucha
The best piece of advice in Frank J. Pietrucha’s book, Supercommunicator, does not come from Frank J. Pietrucha. It comes from Albert Einstein in the form of a well-known quote relayed to the author by Vint Cerf, an Internet pioneer: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Supercommunicator, subtitled Explaining the Complicated So Anyone Can Understand, is certainly as simple as possible. It’s written in clear, uncomplicated sentences. It focuses on helping communication professionals—or anyone who communicates on the job—hone their message for maximum impact. It contains advice such as “The more information you have about your audience, the greater your chances are for successfully reaching them with a meaningful message.”
Pietrucha is the principal of Definitive Communications, and although he presents the book as a revolution, it comes across as a series of gentle reminders. Avoid jargon. Know your audience. Use big words sparingly. That’s not to say there isn’t worthwhile advice. As a writer, Pietrucha is an adept magpie with a keen sense for useful quotes (see Einstein, above) and telling anecdotes, whether it’s borrowing a Bloomberg Businessweek columnist’s analysis of why Steve Jobs was a more successful communicator than Bill Gates or recounting the time he consulted for a house-pet cloning company called Genetic Savings & Clone (and got a photo of its cloned cat, Copy Cat, on 20/20 and the cover of Newsweek). But in the end, the book is less a manifesto than a guide to keep handy for the next time you absolutely have to trim that PowerPoint presentation from 50 slides to 35.
Where Pietrucha falters is in situating his advice in a larger communications climate that seems, at times, jarringly outdated. “Gone are the days of dense, heavy text that weighs audiences down,” he explains, as though the primary error of today’s communicators is an excess of density. Early in Supercommunicator, Pietrucha uses the discovery of the Higgs boson as an example of a highly complex subject that the public is at a loss to understand. “Everyone had heard about the discovery, but no one comprehended it,” concludes his anecdotal research.
Yet it’s difficult to imagine any moment in human history when comprehension is more readily available. Start with Google. Or Wikipedia. In fact, after the discoverers of Higgs boson won the Nobel prize, the New York Times posted a concise interactive online graphic with the straightforward title, “What Is the Higgs?”
Far from drowning in impenetrable information, as Pietrucha posits, we’re living in a golden age of clarity. Look around: We’ve reached peak explanation. Explaining things has become a boom industry, with branch offices from Freakonomics to the latest one-word-titled bestseller (Blink, Nudge, Sway) that ventures to decode the world. New journalistic outlets, from the New York Times’s The Upshot to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, promise to lasso and hogtie complex issues, then butcher and serve them up for easy digestion. The news site Vox even breaks down its subjects into “cards,” flashcard-style explainers lovingly prepared for the reader (“What is MERS?”), as if you’re studying for the SATs or the final round of Jeopardy!
Which is why, though Supercommunicator offers lots of handy nuggets, it’s the quote from Einstein that persists as the true moral. He wasn’t championing clarity as much as warning against an obsession with simplicity that robs the subject of nuance, and thus truth.
Pietrucha starts from the presumption that, in the Digital Age, we live in an overly complex world we can barely decipher. If anything, the opposite is true: Our world is in danger of being oversimplified. Perhaps that’s what needs to be communicated.