Dumbing Things Down

I had lunch with Milton Pappas yesterday. Milton and his partners at Euclid Partners taught me the venture capital business in the mid/late 80s. We got to talking about mentors and I asked him who taught him the venture capital business. He told me General Georges Doriot of American Research and Development taught him a lot in the late 60s and early 70s. Milton and his partner Bliss McCrum started Euclid in 1971.

As we were talking about biotech, an area Milton loves and invested heavily in, he told me that he ran into so many people in that sector who were brilliant but could not communicate what they were working on simply and crisply. He returned to Doriot and told me that the General had advised him that “I don’t care how brilliant an entrepreneur is, I won’t back them if they can’t explain themselves simply and in a manner everyone can understand.”

That rings true to me. It is not enough to understand something that others don’t understand. At some point you have to convince people that what you are doing is important and they should join your company, buy from your company, invest in your company, and write about your company. I like to call this “dumbing things down” but it doesn’t have to involve simplification (although that is one way to do it). It could also involve creating effective analogies, describing a future state where the technology is in mass use, or some other technique that makes something complex easy to understand.

One of the essential techniques in bringing technology to market is simplification. Dumb things down. It’s super important.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Douglas Crets

    Fred, you may be interested in what I am building in Asia, maybe not as an investor (or maybe!), but from this point of view, as we aim to be the marketing, communications and media augmentation for all startups going through incubators in Asia and China.

    1. Douglas Crets

      Or, for all startups before they go through incubators in Asia and China. We are the incubator before the incubator, so to speak.

      1. Avi Deitcher

        Heh, do you tell founders you are selling them “dumb it” services? 🙂

        1. Douglas Crets

          No. I listen to them and then give them what they need. A much better way of talking to the audience. I don’t have to tell them what I will give them. I give it to them. I show, instead of tell. 🙂

          1. Avi Deitcher

            Hmm, so how do you do sales? If you first listen to them and give it to them, nothing left to sell; if you don’t, they don’t get how badly they need it yet.

          2. Douglas Crets

            The selling is unlocked in the consultation. I have found the best form of marketing in startups ecosystem is relationships and context management. The more you gt to know someone, the more often they will need you to help them. This is not manipulative. This is simply what happens when someone with a special field of interest or talent is engaged with someone needing that talent. You seem to be looking at sales as a one off moment in time, or a transaction. But when you are building a startup, selling to a startup is not about transactions. It’s about honesty, support and encouragement through relationship.I’m an investor without any money.

          3. Donna Brewington White

            But when you are building a startup, selling to a startup is not about transactions. It’s about honesty, support and encouragement through relationship.Oh, SO true!

    2. fredwilson

      i am not entirely sure what “marketing communications and media augmentation” meansit’s too complex a phrase for me to understand

      1. Douglas Crets

        we dumb things down for founders. Like I just did for myself.

        1. fredwilson

          got it. that’s a very useful service

      2. Daksh

        “marketing communications and media augmentation” – that move is a Queen’s gambit which was accepted

        1. Douglas Crets

          If you are talking to me, I thought I played this quite well. 🙂

          1. Daksh

            Amen 🙂

  2. Adrian Bye

    yes, this is so important and can be so hard to do :/

  3. LIAD

    TL;DROnce upon a time there was ___Every day, ___One day ___ Because of that, ___Because of that, ___Until finally ___———–“In the initial stages of a startup you have to talk to a lot of people — potential users, advisors, investors, industry experts, early employees, and eventually journalists. The first question people ask is “what does your startup do?” So communicating what you do is the first tactical problem you have to solve.Human beings are wired to respond to storytelling, and all stories have the same fundamental structure. Here is the simplest possible framework to tell a story, from Pixar’s rules of storytelling:Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.The first part is the setup. The world used to work in a particular way, and here is what it meant for people’s daily lives. The next part is the change in the world. These parts are only tangentially related to your startup — the environmental change you’re describing should be inevitable regardless of whether you start your company. The market is efficient, remember?Once you describe the change in the world, only then do you talk about your product and company. The change is occurring independent of your actions. You just happen to notice it first.The last part shows how your company will transform people’s lives. When your startup grows large enough to own the majority of the market, you will be the cause of the next qualitative environmental change. In this way your startup will complete the circle of technology innovation.This is how the best companies tell their stories. People buy cars driven by internal combustion engines. But battery technology has gotten cheap enough that we can build a pure electric vehicle. It’s still fairly expensive, so we’ll start with luxury vehicles. As battery technology gets even cheaper, we’ll go down market. Until finally, we’ll transform the auto industry so that every car will be an electric car.This type of story telling is incredibly effective at propelling your startup. Early adopters, employees and advisors will be more likely to sign on because you’re inviting them on a journey. Investors will be more likely to respond because this matches their model of the world. And journalists will cover you because you’re essentially doing their job for them.A good story gives you tremendous descriptive power to explain what you do to different parties in a consistent way. But even more importantly a good story is prescriptive — it informs decisions and forces you to make disciplined choices. If you’re about to make a decision that doesn’t fit your story, you have to explicitly choose whether to reevaluate the decision or to refine your story. Early stage startups get pulled in a thousand different directions. They’re much more likely to get killed by compromises than by committing to a wrong path. A good story keeps you honest, prevents you from trying to please everybody, and gives you the mental clarity to go in a concrete direction.” – http://www.defmacro.org/201

    1. fredwilson

      that’s awesome

      1. LIAD

        very cool that successful movies all follow Pixar’s 22 rule story archttp://imgur.com/gallery/E8xe0

        1. pointsnfigures

          that’s very good for more than startups.

        2. JamesHRH

          Pixar list is classic writing advice.

      2. David Barnes

        Don’t let this gold stay buried in a comment. Give the man a guest post!

    2. awaldstein

      so good.

      1. Richard

        I’ve found that one version of the story usually isn’t enough. The challenge is fitting it into the time, place and VC you are speaking to.

        1. awaldstein

          The big thing to answer on top of a view of a changed world is why you are the one to do it?

          1. Richard

            Yes, billy beane type VCs are slim and none and slim is on vacation.

          2. Donna Brewington White

            As I’ve been reading this post and comments I am reminded that you have several times asked me about what I’ve seen change in the world of recruiting. I’ve been so steeped in figuring it out that it has been a difficult question to answer. I now realize more poignantly the significance of this question, particularly as I think about positioning in the market and my distinct value proposition. Not an isolated question but an important one.Dang, you’re good!

    3. Ana Milicevic

      Not surprised we’re on the same page. Wish I’d seen your comment before I posted mine, since it should live somewhere under this thread.

    4. Joe Cardillo

      Well said. One add is, start doing this from day 1. I’ve found that describing what you create just requires time and consistency, you can’t boil it down in a day…and that’s why the best pitches are simple, but reflect an entrepreneurs entire set of research, experiences, relationships etc.

    5. Girish Mehta

      Humans love narratives. Story telling is a fantastic tool to communicate a decision, strategy, course of action, reason for existence.Humans love narratives. Narratives can be very dangerous if used to actually make (not communicate) a choice, decision or to choose a path forward.Storytelling bias is real….the dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves.

      1. SubstrateUndertow

        Humans love narratives. perhaps because it’s where we all liveevery life is lived from inside a personal narrativerequiring each of us to master surfing the resonant-interval betweenour own narratives and a dynamic-complex of competing external narratives.creatively workable narratives are humanity’s pivotal survival strategyStorytelling bias is real….the dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves.Isn’t the flip side of that danger the power of creative disruption ?it seems to me that postmodern cynicism too readily abandons the experimental validity of dreaming/building/testing over-aching reusable shared-narrativesdreaming/building/testing potentially workable new shared-narratives seems custom fit for a world empowered by distributive social-network Apps ?Maybe those Apps are just “Waiting for Godot” :-)Waiting for Godothttps://www.youtube.com/wat…

        1. FAKE GRIMLOCK


    6. panterosa,

      Until finally the damn thing got fixed!

    7. Salt Shaker

      “The meaning of your communication is the response you get” (NLP).

      1. LIAD

        The map is not the territory. 😉

        1. SubstrateUndertow

          Maybe that is not necessarily true in Cyberspace ?Maybe Cyberspace is our collective instantiation of Douglas Hofstadter’s “I am a Strange Loop” “In the end, we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference.”Cyberspace has the unlimited potential to accelerate our collective synchronicity into a “strange loop” feedback-merger of the map and territory.Just as all the modern world physical realities we take for granted are in fact virtual-reality mind-over-matter extensions of human technical imagination, everything manmade is a mind-over-matter “Strange-Loop” merger between the “human-mind-as-map” and the external-phisical-world as territory.Cyberspace can now empower that mind-over-matter “Strange-Loop” merger of map and territory to create new vitual-social-realities as extensions of human technical imagination.I think of it as Hofstadter’s “Strange-Loop” theory of special map-territory relativity.Our cyberspace social-reality shift is still being vastly under estimated/appreciated.

      2. marcoselmalo

        Intent is not privileged.

    8. William Mougayar

      What you described is similar to the process that Nancy Duarte explains in her book Resonate, on visual presentations. Highly recommended: http://www.duarte.com/

    9. Donna Brewington White

      Liad, you’ve always been a great example to me of elegantly conveying a point. Your frequent position at the top of the comments is not just a function of time zone advantage. :)Often your elegance is the combination of brevity and poignancy. This is perhaps the longest comment you’ve offered… yet still efficient, elegant. Amazing thoughts to ponder. Thank you.

      1. LIAD

        Donna – you are most kind. Thank you. Unfortunately it is undeserved.Todays comment which had quoatation marks was lifted directly from a blog post I linked to at the bottom of the comment.

        1. Donna Brewington White

          I stand corrected, partially. This does not take away from the other hundreds of comments over the years… or your astute use of quoted material. But does explain the length! 😉

        2. Abdallah Al-Hakim

          Great comment. I would say that even internally within a company it is important to explain to executives some technical aspects. For example, I work in a technical area of marketing operations and need to always simplify things when explaining my work and it’s relevance to executives.

  4. Daksh

    “… I like to call this “dumbing things down” but it doesn’t have to involve simplification..”Would not entirely agree here as the statement complicates the meaning of “simplification” thereby impacting the title of the post itself. “creating effective analogies, describing a future state…” etc. are all forms of simplification. “Dumbing things down” might semantically reflect the depth of simplification rather than be a different form of action

  5. Matt Kruza

    Its almost (although not exactly) like the quote “if I had longer, I would have written a shorter message”. To be concise, yet still convey meaning is an indicator of a true expert.

  6. neurodspqed

    One can dumb things down all they want, but if the ear on the receiving end has already made their mind up about something (from their actions), there’s not much one can do… except move on.

  7. Avi Deitcher

    When I write a preso for clients that takes 2 days, I say it will take 2 weeks. “2 weeks?!?” “Yeah, 2 days to gather the data and create 20 slides of presentation… and 8 days to get it down to 3 slides and an instantly understood message.” Hack and slash…

    1. Avi Deitcher

      My friend the rabbi says it takes 1 hour to prepare a 5 minute sermon, and 5 minutes to prepare an hour’s sermon.

      1. William Mougayar

        yup- that’s what Churchill said: “if I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”Churchill’s command of the English language was his biggest weapon.

        1. Chimpwithcans

          That and the RAF 😉

        2. Avi Deitcher

          I loved Churchill’s command of the language. Just finished reading “Troublesome Young Men” about the rebellion against Chamberlain.And for a really enjoyable read, “The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill” http://www.amazon.com/Wicke

        3. Mario Cantin

          Don’t forget his cigars

  8. William Mougayar

    Our world is getting more complex by the minute. Clarity of mind leads to clarity of communications & it cuts through the fog, then your market understands you, and they will follow you. Then you win.That’s a trait that Steve Jobs possessed so very well, and it’s a key factor for having lead Apple to what it is. Maybe he was a natural born communicator. He never spoke for too long, but he always said the essential things.

    1. Matt Kruza

      I am not a Jobs fan or Apple fan, but clarity and simplicity of their message is something everyone has to respect and should learn from.

    2. Joe Cardillo

      “If you can’t explain it simply, it doesn’t exist” is what I repeat to keep myself honest. Of course it’s not 100% true, but it helps cut through the junk.

      1. William Mougayar

        ha…that reminds me of our phone conversation :)i would reverse it to: “if they can’t understand you, you don’t exist”.

        1. Joe Cardillo

          Indeed, now we’re in Descartes territory lol

          1. Girish Mehta

            Totally ! Is sound sound only if somebody is there to hear it ? If a tree falls in the forest…http://en.wikipedia.org/wik

          2. Mario Cantin

            According to my recording device, yes. I consider this question now resolved.

          3. Girish Mehta

            This question is circa 1910. May be we need a 21st century version…:-)

          4. Joe Cardillo

            “If an app is added to the app store…” ? =)

          5. Girish Mehta

            Nice !!! “If an app is added to the app store and nobody….”

    3. LE

      Jobs had charisma is really what it boils down to. In order to lead men you need that. Perhaps a reason why it’s harder for women to lead. They don’t tend to have the charisma that men respond to.It’s not all about words it’s about the way the words are delivered. Cadence, vocal intonation (or whatever it’s called) tone of voice all of that stuff. [1] [2]Some of “delivery” can be learned but most of delivery can’t.None of this is a non starter of course. It’s just going to be naturally easier for some people than for others.[1] Ditto in entertainment, Same Seinfeld joke coming out of another comedian’s mouth isn’t as funny. The delivery, intonation (and of course halo which comes from somewhere) is important in how the words are perceived at the recipient.[2] I was watching the “Eagles” documentary on Netflix last night (highly recommend). The words coming out of Glenn Frey’s mouth just seemed to be more interesting and compelling to listen to than the other artists (at least up to the point that I stopped watching).

      1. Richard

        Joan of Arc

      2. Dasher

        Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer are plenty charismatic. I don’t agree that it has anything to with male or female.

    4. JLM

      .Job’s prep was legendary.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

      1. William Mougayar

        Ronald Reagan was also a great communicator!!! I liked his short ones.”Trust, but verify.””We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.””Don’t be afraid to see what you see.””Facts are stubborn things.””How can a president not be an actor?”

        1. JLM

          .Like a fine wine, getting better with age. Better than reality?JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        2. Donna Brewington White

          Some good ones there.

  9. Douglas Crets

    Everyone is sharing their old saws, so I thought I’d share one that I was always told as a journalist. “You write well, therefore you should write less.”

    1. Matt Kruza

      yep I feel like we are all crowdsourcing a buzzfeed “listicle” of startup / communication aphorisms!

      1. Avi Deitcher

        I dunno; I haven’t seen the words “cloud” or “big data” in this thread, so it must not be real! LOL!

  10. Matthew Ranauro

    I’ll be interested if you’ll be interesting.

  11. Chimpwithcans

    I see this as pretty much the final link in the chain to achieving funding. Presumably, a whole load of work and business planning, and even execution must happen before a message simplification takes place. Otherwise it is just a message with nothing more to back it up.

    1. Douglas Crets

      I agree with this. I also think that marketing agencies need and are going to be disrupted. This is the problem with marketing: you pay a lot of money for someonne to speak on your behalf, down cul de sacs tech blogging sites. Tech bloggers actually are in the business of creating their own ego portfolio, which means that 80% of marketing and pr services is going into convincing an editor or a reporter to pay attention to something they are not inherently interested in and not incentivized to care about.So why not put the power in the hands of the founder. If you give a founder a necessary framework — not a growth hack trick or a fund for advertising — then that founder can create his or her own media.I like to think back to Fred’s post about the Kickstarter guy who talked about people gathering on platforms of value. Other investors have talked about it like this, and Fred has said this: A startup product kind of markets itself. Well a founder is also a product of his own invention, so if that founder is taking the time to whittle down a real story and communicate effectively, than they are marketing that product effectively.The trouble is: what do most founders have to learn how to sell their company? Really poorly informed or self-interested bloggers. That’s no way to learn about yourself as a kind of marketing narrative. I’d rather hire someone to teach me to augment my own story so that I rule the game, and can have the right kinds of conversations with community, investors, and competition.When you really stand back and look at the media ecosystem, so much of it is on autopilot. The real universe of founders is so much bigger, but speaking right and writing write will make it so.

      1. Chimpwithcans

        Founders’ marketing platform – good idea – next step to me is to decide which channels of marketing to focus on in creating the platform. Some marketing and associated work is best outsourced. Some would fit better on the kind of platform you suggest no?

        1. Douglas Crets

          happy to talk about it and feel it out. I think your instincts are on point. some things work outside, some inside, baseball. some things in others hands some things in yours.

  12. Abs Ghosh

    One of my favourite Einstein quotes – “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

    1. Avi Deitcher

      Great line! I use something similar when I study Talmud (which can be complicated both linguistically and conceptually) with my kids. Make sure they can explain it simply… then I know they understand it.

      1. Girish Mehta

        Another of Einstein’s quotes is one of my favourites – “Not everything that can be counted countsAnd not everything that counts can be counted”.

        1. Twain Twain

          That’s because value is a perception and not a price or a probability.

    2. rimalovski

      We liked that quote so much, we permanently put it on the steps at the Leslie eLab at NYU!

      1. JamesHRH

        two steps on the other side of awesome!

        1. Pete Griffiths

          But not universally true!!!

    3. JamesHRH

      YYYYYEEEEESSSS!Einstein’s was a better common man communicator than he was physicist!

      1. Twain Twain

        How many people read his papers with their complex integrals and Hamiltonian operators?Compare this with how many people know his E = mC2 equation.The thing for founders is to be able to flex between the complex and the simple. Not easy to do but practice makes perfect.And it’s easier to go from complex knowledge (domain expertise) to simple communication than vice versa.

    4. Pete Griffiths

      There is a good deal of truth to that…BUT…it has its limits!Some phenomena in this universe resist simple explanation. Einstein had terrible problems coming to terms with quantum mechanics (and never really did so) because he couldn’t believe that something so ‘weird’ could be real. But quantum mechanics is probably the most thoroughly tested and validated of all scientific theories and does reflect an underlying reality that just isn’t amenable to simple explanation. As Feynman said ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t.’

      1. Girish Mehta

        True. He also said this :-)…

        1. Pete Griffiths

          :)I think there is a good deal of confusion between the laudable desire that communication be clear and the fact that sometimes that which is to be communicated is not clear and may never be. Not everything can be conveniently packaging into readily communicated morsels.

      2. Girish Mehta

        Regarding his problems coming to terms with quantum mechanics, he famously said – “God Doesn’t Play Dice with the Universe”.Legend has it that Neils Bohr replied – “Einstein don’t tell God what to do”.p.s. Another anecdote on his discomfort with quantum theory – He was walking back late night at Princeton with the physicist Abraham Pais, and the moon was out. He asked Pais – “Do you really believe the moon is not there when you are not looking at it ?”

  13. William Mougayar

    I would add there is 2 parts to this: 1) Communicating your story when you’re starting it, 2) Communicating your story as it evolves and permeates the market.While #1 is easier, #2 is where many seemingly successful startups falter, as they fail to re-simplify their story as it gets to beceome naturally more complex. That’s where brand strategy & development kicks in,- something that most young entrepreneurs know very little about.

    1. Ana Milicevic

      Spot on – the story evolves as the market does, your competitors, consumer behavior (in B2C cases), etc. Most companies (especially early-stage) think of defining their go-to-market messaging as a one-off: we do it now, it’s set in stone, and then we don’t have to think about it ever again.

      1. William Mougayar

        yup. you need to evolve it.

  14. awaldstein

    So true.I hope the bitcoin thinkers and bloggersare listening.From what I’ve read, they are not.

    1. Joe Cardillo

      This, 100x. I understand (a lot thanks to William’s breakdowns) that bitcoin is a huge opportunity. But you wouldn’t know it from the way many of the bitcoiners describe it….though an upside is that it makes for one of the funnier twitter accounts out there, https://twitter.com/buttcoin

  15. josh guttman

    just read this Einstein quote yesterday: “any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.”

    1. Avi Deitcher

      Ever try to read his original 1905 special relativity paper? Fermilab has it online http://www.fourmilab.ch/ete

    2. JamesHRH

      This topic is in Al’s wheelhouse!

      1. josh guttman


  16. pointsnfigures

    I am building Uber for Doctors. (dumbed down enough! kidding) Last night I went to TechStars Chicago to meet potential companies and listen. No one had an elevator pitch down. (That’s okay, they’ll learn) Know your product and know your customer. Get that point across at a minimum.

    1. Avi Deitcher

      Interesting. But what about medical history? Is the assumption that knowing my doctor doesn’t matter much if they have a proper medical history? And that ratings will cover medical competence *and* bedside manner?

      1. pointsnfigures

        Sorry, sarcasm doesn’t come through on comments! Fred wrote a post a while ago that said, “I dislike when someone says their company is Blank for Blank”—but when you do that it really dumbs it down! I agree with him-so it’s important to have a good elevator pitch that gets to the core of why you do what you do so anyone can understand. Not easy. Sorry for confusing anyone..

        1. Avi Deitcher

          That is really funny! Well, I fell into that one…And now I remember his post on that. How about a new startup?”Sarcasm for Comments”. Sign me up!!

          1. pointsnfigures

            I am in! The first comment that threw you off is my fault. I am sorry.

          2. Avi Deitcher

            Sorry? You kidding? I love good sarcasm, even (especially?) if it catches me.

  17. JimHirshfield

    Sales 101 right there. Like Einstein said, if you don’t understand it well enough to explain it to someone else, then you don’t understand it… Or something to that effect. (Yes, too lazy to Google it right now)Edit: others beat me to the punch on this quote.

  18. Ana Milicevic

    I think of it more as storytelling. Like with a good story you have to grip the reader or listener, instill empathy, and make sure they’re with you. In tech fields it often comes down to simplifying a complex concept or conveying the crux of what you’re working on to a somewhat layman audience but it’s still telling the story of why you’re building what you’re building, what it is, how you’ll build it and most importantly why should your listener care.Storytelling is a communication skill that can and should be learned, refined, coached.

    1. Joe Cardillo

      Re: empathy, read a good thing about that recently… http://alistapart.com/artic…Before telling people about what you (*royal you) are creating, or even asking how they would use it, it helps to listen and understand them. Some of that is 1:1 customer development, but there are also plenty of ways to scan and analyze digital conversations to get that info.

      1. Mario Cantin

        This is a great link Joe, thanks.

        1. Joe Cardillo

          Yep, I’ve read it a few times already. While I agree with Fred, I think too many startups toss language up into a landing page A/B test model and then declare themselves the kings of storytelling and value propositions. That understanding is important.

      2. Ana Milicevic

        Great article – thanks for sharing it. Couldn’t agree more w/ your comment. Judging by some of my recent advisory engagements effective communication appears to be particularly challenging with first time founders.

        1. Joe Cardillo

          True, and many of them don’t even have a clear set of agreements with each other or themselves…not sure if you caught, but Aaron Harris at YC wrote something about that a few months ago ( http://www.aaronkharris.com… ). I understand a certain amount of hubris is expected in startups, but it got me thinking about how much money is wasted on good ideas that aren’t really executable because founders can’t communicate internally much less talk with (potential) customers. Of course I’m a first-time founder myself so this all comes with a grain of salt. But I’ve been in / around and advised enough of them to see some of the way it plays out.

          1. Ana Milicevic

            Harris’ points about ego and decision management in small teams are particularly interesting. I don’t think we as a tech innovation industry place enough emphasis on the importance of process, communication, and management. These terms seem to carry a certain negative connotation in tech circles and are seen as a slow-down or impediment. Instead, they’re really a foundation layer and should be treated as such — and this one learns from experience.

          2. Joe Cardillo

            100% agree. I found myself reading that piece and thinking, it’s on all of us (entrepreneurs, investors, gov’t, etc.) to care about those things. Otherwise we deserve what we get, which is wasted time, money, and narrow solutions that only solve a problem for a few years before it gets recycled back into the market.

    2. William Mougayar

      Ana, have you read Annette Simmons on story telling, the 6 Kinds of Stories.http://www.annettesimmons.c

      1. Ana Milicevic

        Thanks William — that’s a great classification. I hadn’t come across it before.I usually reach for Simon Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’ talk to drive home the importance of effective storytelling:http://www.ted.com/talks/si

        1. Donna Brewington White

          That’s one of my favorites!

  19. Tom Labus

    Brevity is essential along with clarity.

  20. JaredMermey

    Elon Musk does this incredibly well, especially with complex science. There is a great video somewhere of him describing warp speed incredibly clearly without the listener needing more than an elementary understanding of physics.I also believe his straightforwardness and succinctness, particularly around discussing realized and intended business, is why public investors like him.

    1. Avi Deitcher

      I would like to see that video. Can you post it?

        1. Avi Deitcher


  21. panterosa,

    I’d like to argue for calling this “dumb it up”, not dumb it down. While getting a message to the masses seems like bringing it down to the LCD, it’s more like polishing it up so it so the idea can make it’s debut as a goal.

    1. Alex Fair of MedStartr

      Or Dumb it different. We all are dumb about something.

      1. panterosa,

        Within our difficulties lie our talents, we just need to make friends with that idea. I took one class in the field in which I work, I disliked it, and 30 years later decided I could not have been alone.

    2. JamesHRH

      Einstein – it should be as simple as possible but no simpler.Simplify. Small words. Short sentences.Nothing made me more effective in dealing with people than answering tough questions from my children when they were 4,5,6.

      1. panterosa,

        Exactly. My target audience is 4-6 for that very reason. If you can’t explain it to them, you’re sunk.

  22. Jonathan Libov

    A filmmaker friend of mine once taught me the phrase “Slow Joe in the Back Row”. Slow Joe is the North Star of storytelling — you’re not done “dumbing things down”, or simplifying things”, until you’re sure Slow Joe in the Back Row will get it.I also think this rule of interface copy applies well to pitching your startup’s story: https://twitter.com/lukew/s…. In other words, tell the least amount you have to tell without appearing cagey or arcane. The upshot: You’ll get points for showmanship and command of the domain if you can inspire the right questions and then answer them with authority.

    1. Josh Bernoff

      Einstein said that things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

      1. Jonathan Libov

        Wow that’s great and totally on pointEinstein was sneakily a pretty smart guy

  23. DJL

    This especially appies in the field of information security. The patchwork of government regulations and hard-core tech solutions (encryption, malware, threat signatures) makes it so complex that many companies simply do nothing or the wrong thing. That is exactly why we are launching our new venture ComplianceShield – to “simplify” (dumb down) the process so anyone can understand it. So complexity breeds opportunity.

  24. BillMcNeely

    It’s an interesting this is a lesson from a Veteran on the heals of the recently concluded Patriot Boot Camp presented by Techstars in NYC this last weekend.Simplification in any type of communication is important as well and conveying in the flavor of the audience.When I was Lietentant 80% or more of my platoon was Hispanic or African American from the inner cities and spoke a much different variation of English than I did.My platoon sergeant ( who was African American and a college graduate/former school teacher) told me Sir you are losing the troops with your $5 words.As the deployment wore I received less and less lost looks when I laid what we were going to do.By the end of deployment i must have gotten the message because when I returned home my now ex wife was telling me to use less slang!

    1. JLM

      .KISS and the 5-paragraph field order are the essence of military communication.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  25. DJL

    BTW, Fred. You are essentially a VC Grandson. Your mentor’s mentor was the founder of VC investing. Nice lineage.

    1. Tom Labus

      that’s very cool

    2. JamesHRH

      That is very cool and in some way, not much of a surprise.

    3. Russell

      certainly a #humblebrag

  26. Alex Fair of MedStartr

    Well said Fred, nowhere more important than in medical innovation. Most of us went to Med School or Grad school where we were taught to speak in Latin jargon. But success for a healthcare innovation is about engaging all stakeholders in medicine from Patient to providers to partners and of course, investors. Our job at MedStartr is all about what you write about here, communicating the idea to each person who needs it in ways they understand. When done right our crowdfunding campaigns market validate ideas beautifully, giving investors a clear sign about which companies make the best investments. This month alone over 1.7M in market validation, new revenue booked for startups, happened on thw site. First hundreds of doctors and patients clicked and said, “yes, I want that!” And paid in advance for the product. Then partners stepped up including two of the largest pharma companies, two large health systems, Sprint, and ten others. Predictably, the investors have started calling but it all started with communications 101 – speaking to your audience – not always dumbing it down, usually just dumbing it different – because we are all dumb about something. Good post, thanks.

  27. Tom Evslin

    My father used to say “there is no such thing as a great idea poorly expressed”. But he was a writer and he could even express bad ideas well. I think the truth is that we don’t believe an idea is good unless it is well-expressed – which means succinctly and clearly with a touch of originality.For myself I believe that nothing great has ever been achieved without irrational exuberance. A dimension of the communication of an idea to a potential investor has to be your own excitement. That is not told in extra words, not in an explicit promise of riches, but in infectious tone and body language.

    1. LE

      I believe that nothing great has ever been achieved without irrational exuberance.Agree. Essentially manic men, tilting at windmills, and the infectious tone that you speak of. Extremely important.And specifically, as anyone who has every done cold calling knows, “infectious tone and body language” is the exact reason that you are more likely to sell prospects later in the day, when you have a string of success in the morning. People respond differently to someone who has the body language of a salesperson who is winning (that day) vs. someone who is losing. While not everyone can and does read the face enough subliminally or openly notice that it can easily change the outcome.

  28. Gary Culliss

    In the book, Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, they talk about avoiding the “curse of knowledge” that causes people to explain too much and lose their audience. “Avoiding the curse of knowledge” is another way of saying that someone should “dumb things down,” and the book has a lot of nice examples on this topic.

  29. William Mougayar

    I recommend Annette Simmons’ book “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins” – http://www.annettesimmons.c….Telling stories and dumbing things down doesn’t end once you get funded.

  30. awaldstein

    Fred–something else I should share.Of course story rules.Of course drawing a picture of what the world will look like when what you envisage is everywhere is key.Not enough.With funding, why you? is equally as important especially where the pedigree of founders is so high and honestly somewhat similar.Focus on why you as the one to build it.The filmmaker making software to compete with Periscope. The outside the industry twist that can disrupt.This is almost always missing.

  31. howardlindzon

    Same goes for investing strategies in stocks and for angel firms etc

    1. pointsnfigures


  32. Josh Bernoff

    Fred, since leaving Forrester, my mission in life is now to help people create these clear explanations. Even more imperative in this world filled with distractions . . . you have to get to the point _quickly_.How to do it at withoutbullshit.com

  33. JLM

    .All good stories have a Setup, a Reaction, an Attack and and Resolution/Ending.Interesting characters have exterior characteristics, traits, quirks. They have a back story and history — interior. They take action in which their exterior and their interior work with each other or against each other to create behavior.The protagonist has a goal and an antagonist who stands between him and his goal. The protagonists behaviors are the force exerted against the antagonist.The story is how the character overcomes the antagonist and either succeeds or fails, again, through his behavior.Stories are life and life is stories.For a startup much of the story planning is just Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Objectives, Values and Culture. This is how the startup’s story is being crafted.The entrepreneur is the protagonist and the question to be solved is the antagonist — sometimes the marketplace also.The cue cards for the entrepreneur are the elevator pitch, the taxi cab pitch, the board room pitch.It is not important what is said but it is vitally important what is heard.The big “fail” of most pitches is not ascertaining what is actually being heard. This is where most entrepreneurs lose their audiences as Fred so rightly observes.It is an epidemic and I see it all the time with groups like TechStar Austin and other groups of bright — brilliant — entrepreneurs.KISS — keep it simple, stupid.JLMwww.themusingofthebigredcar…

  34. JLM

    .A great technique to ensure efficient communication is the “brief back” both for the speaker but also the listener.I will often say to someone — “Let me tell you what I heard you say.”Sometimes I am forced to say — “I have absolutely no idea what you just told me. Let’s do that again.”It heads off misunderstandings.In the military, Ranger School stuff, the patrol leader issues a 5-paragraph field order which covers five critical areas of the patrol. Then he asks the recipients to “brief back” the patrol order.I have never, ever, ever had an entire patrol brief the patrol order back correctly. There are always two or three guys who get it perfectly every time — they are always the guys taking notes.You keep repeating it until everyone gets it right or you replace the dumbasses who cannot ever get it right.When the shit hits the fan and you have to act from memory, it works like a champ.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. Joe Cardillo

      Indeed. It’s a good way to ensure accountability, and it’s often a more polite way of pointing out when people are on the wrong track, since they need to understand and own the problem.

    2. James Ferguson @kWIQly

      JLM -Hope you aren’t offended if I say this reminds me of “the dirty dozen” training session

    3. Pete Griffiths

      Chinese whispers.

  35. Sam

    This is the flip side of the “your idea isn’t worth shit” coin. If you want your idea to be worth something, people are going to need to execute on it. The only way that is going to happen is if they connect with it. Communicating the market opportunity and framing up the business model is fundamental to building the team that builds the business.

  36. Terry O

    “Dumbing it down” is an unfortunate description here. The key to simplifying ideas is to think clearly about, and communicate their essence. Blaise Pascal once said “I am sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”.

  37. Patrick Browne

    anyone a fan of Bill Burr or see his last Netflix special “I’m sorry you feel that way.”?He talks about a joke a Dallas bar made on a chalkboard. The joke was offensive to a lot of people. But, Burr says it was the perfectly constructed joke because there was absolutely no fat. If you remove any one word from the joke it no longer makes sense. Every word was vital.I am trying to apply this rule to my start-up and overall communication. Keep it short & simple. Only include the vitals.I’m not there yet, but am improving. I have found writing a daily blog post makes good practice.

    1. Joe Cardillo

      One of the things I tell younger entrepreneurs is, write consistently. Could be once a week, once a day, doesn’t matter. You have to have a love of revision, of editing, of improving, iterating.

  38. LE

    At some point you have to convince people that what you are doing is important and they should join your company, buy from your company, invest in your companyEssentially selling. Which from what I always read is downplayed, putdown, made fun of, and derided and not really all that important a topic in the startup community. Because in the minds of the uber engineer, code is what makes the world beat a path to your door. Who needs sales types, what do they contribute?

  39. Sean Hull

    I know what you mean, but I don’t like the phrase “dumb things down” so much.I did some writing for Infoworld a year or two ago. I had been blogging for 10 years, but this was the first time I’d worked with professional editors. Dumbing things down was one of the first conversations we had. They explained that I should “appeal to a broad audience”.It’s interesting, because I find even though I’m technical myself, I often respond better to material that speaks to a broader audience. It’s as though the process of removing jargon & domain specific vernacular, forces us to think about things outside that domain. And that’s a good thing.I think we can all benefit by speaking to a broader audience.

    1. Sam

      Economists refer to it as “parsimony” instead of “dumbing things down.” Personally, I find it ironic that they have their own special word for it.But exactly as you say, parsimony is when they can communicate widely and clearly with simple language about something that resides in a complex domain. Economics there — but could just as easily be technology. When a brilliant PhD economist has the gift of parsimony — and very few do — it is a beautiful thing to behold.

  40. LE

    he told me that he ran into so many people in that sector who were brilliant but could not communicate what they were working on simply and crisply. He returned to Doriot and told me that the General had advised him that “I don’t care how brilliant an entrepreneur is, I won’t back them if they can’t explain themselves simply and in a manner everyone can understand.”The other side of this of course is that there is “gold in thar hills” or whatever that expression is. Opportunity that others are writing off exactly for that reason.You see a similar thing on Shark Tank pitches on TV. The people that communicate well, are highly confident, and can sell and “talk a good game pre game” tend to get deals at a higher rate it seems than people who are dolts and phumphet.The problem with that thinking is that lack of a good pitch (and preparedness) can create a negative halo that masks an otherwise good product idea or opportunity. While it would be nice to think that all winners are prepared and can communicate well, the fact is that is almost certainly not the case.Now if you want to make the argument that if you can’t prepare for a TV show (or a VC or angel pitch) you are a loser and will not make it then fine. But from watching various businesses in the traditional world for a long long long time I don’t feel that is the case. I think the opportunity can just as often come from the non usual suspects who everyone else is writing off after you polish them up a bit and give them the help that they need. Discovering the hidden talent.That said can’t argue with it (if you don’t mind the competition) as a way of pattern matching to success.

  41. Donna Brewington White

    AVC has challenged me to communicate more simply. And I’ve found this to be vitally important in communicating with tech founders and leadership teams. You’ve been a great example of elegant communication as have been a lot of the commenters. Simplicity is a vital component of elegance. Simplicity does not always mean brevity but often it does. Old habits die hard for this verbal processor but I’m learning.

  42. reece

    “dumbing down” implies the audience is dumb. you may be pitching a smart person, they just don’t have the context of your unique problem…so the key isn’t dumbing down across the board, it’s knowing your audience and communicating effectively to them… whether they’re an investor, a customer, or a guy off the street…

    1. Bryan J Wilson

      Totally agree. It’s not about dumbing down at all – it’s about tailoring the message to the audience. Know who you’re talking to. Such a critical skill, regardless of your role.

  43. EJD

    “A creative man merely has ideas; a resourceful man makes them practical” – DoriotOn Doriot and VC, I recommend the book “Creative Capital”. Its a good read.

  44. MickSavant

    This is one of the things I love about Fakegrimlock. He makes things simple, plus entertaining.

  45. Jonathan Bach

    My two favorite quotes that tangentially relate to this:”Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” -LdV”Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information” -ERT

  46. Emil Sotirov

    I wonder how the founders of Microsoft, Google, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Snapchat would fare if judged by this criteria. None of them strikes me as a particularly good communicator. Convincer may be – but not necessarily by clear, “dumbed down” communication.

  47. James Ferguson @kWIQly

    Interesting read: (maybe one for @wmoug:disqus at startupmanagement)”However unfashionable it may be, I am inclined still to think of the ‘proposition’ as being the heart and soul of any communications brief: the single thought that, if absorbed by our ‘target consumer’, will engender the response we seek….”https://www.linkedin.com/pu…”A great proposition is communications gold. How do we find one?”The author Graham is an old college buddy of mine

  48. Pete Griffiths

    There is one potential problem with this admirable idea. Most ‘dumbing down’ relies on explanation by analogy and metaphor. In fact a good deal of early scientific explanation took the same form and it was this kind of ready relationship to everyday life that made the analogy and the metaphor such powerful explanatory tools. If you google the string “metaphor scientific explanation” you’ll find that this has long been recognized.But here’s the problem.As science has continued to probe into the nature of this wonderful universe scientists have increasingly been uncovering realities for which there is NO meaningful parallel in the everyday world we inhabit. Quantum mechanics was a massive step in this direction but it is now becoming the norm in many fields. And the problem with this is that metaphor and analogy just aren’t applicable. Not only do they not capture the underlying reality, if forced on the situation to ‘dumb it down’ they can seriously distort it.A second trend on the same lines is the growing importance of data driven models. As we make increasing use of such tools as machine learning, be it supervised or not, we are building models that have great power but which are unintelligible in everyday terms. To put is simply, the values of the coefficients in the objective function(s) make no intuitive sense. But there can be no denying that huge amounts of data, appropriately wrangled, can indeed ‘explain’ phenomena in ways that resist conventional explanation. (Peter Norvig: ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data.’This trend towards scientific explanations that resist ‘dumbing down’ turns out to be a deep problem. It used to be the case that a reasonably well educated person could get a sense of the science in a field by an expert dumbing it down but this is no longer the case in many areas. Such ‘dumbing down’ distorts reality to an unrecognizable simplification.The desire that a business should be comprehensible in dumbed down form makes total sense. If you can’t distill a business into something readily comprehensible to all stakeholders you can’t communicate it and you can’t organize to a communicable purpose. But if that business relies on deep science that cannot be readily dumbed down, you have a problem. And this may turn out to be a serious problem because if the investors NEED the science to be dumbed down (but it can’t be) and won’t invest unless it can be (and it can’t) then funds to exciting science will be hard to come by.

  49. Nick

    I work in Hollywood doing computer animation and I have a some friends in biotech startups with this exact problem. I recently launched a visual storytelling studio to address this need directly: http://www.luxvirtual.com – creating animated videos isn’t cheap, but when you’ve got 10 minutes in front of investors to explain years of specialized research you’ve got to make it count.

  50. PhilipSugar

    This is the biggest value of having both a business degree and an engineering degree. In engineering you are always taught to show how smart you are, and in business you realize you need to convince people that have a lot of money that are not so smart, to part with that money.

  51. johnbattelle

    I’d argue it’s more “telling a compelling story” – not dumbing it down, necessarily.

  52. Eli Colner

    I don’t understand why anybody (in early stage) would want to invest in a problem that’s fully baked and well understood, to the point where it can be succinctly marketed to the masses on day one. That’s pretty low hanging fruit. I would suggest taking the opposite approach and work on your imagination instead – the type you applied to your Twitter investment when it was just SMS. Brilliant people are in high demand. Typically they’re running other people’s businesses while they’re developing ideas for their own companies and so they have no space to refine a message. If you give them space they’ll figure out story telling later.



    1. Karen LeBourgeois

      I will definitely make an effort to communicate with people who want the best. I am not a very clear communicator.

  54. Nicolas Rodriguez M

    Its intereseting how this mental process correlates with the simplification (in transition, in disruption today) of process inside every business. From the Artisan to the serialization of production back to the Artisan today.We have the tools to master the whole process as Apple does with Ive and its team. But we need to avoid getting drowned in useless information.

  55. Dasher

    OK. Let’s see who can explain bitcoin simply. This should be a good test.

  56. Mark Evans

    What you’re talking about is telling a good story to different target audiences. As someone who has spent my professional career as a storytelling (reporter, entrepreneur, marketing consultant), it is always puzzling (but not terribly surprising) when startups have trouble telling people what they do and what it matters. The problem is many entrepreneurs have bad storytelling skills. It is not something have learned or, arguably, think is important. But the reality is without is without a good story, it is difficult to get people interested in what you’re doing.

  57. Saul_Lieberman

    or… Slow Things Down

  58. WarumNicht

    Very true, and very difficult.Mark Twain once received this telegram from a publisher:NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.He responded:NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES

  59. bopuc

    While I agree generally with what you are saying, of course, I take issue with calling this “dumbing it down.” Why? Because I have seen too many zealots take that literally. What your are talking about is not “dumbing it down” at all, but crafting it to the point that it becomes accessible.I pick on this because I’ve seen “simplify” used incorrectly like this as well, with disastrous outcomes. When you “dumb it down” or “simplify”–by cutting things out, rather than crafting and forging things down–you lose too much, sometimes irrecoverably. This is particularly damaging when you also need to grow a culture around your message/narrative, for your startup and you investors (and colleagues and employees).You don’t get a diamond by cutting out “unnecessary” carbon… you get a diamond by forging it with heat and pressure and time and attention.I can’t just now offer an alternative to “dumb it down” or “keep it simple”… but I hope at least what I’m saying makes sense. 🙂

  60. LE

    Although I don’t speak much in front of crowds (and haven’t for quite some time) I have this thing when speaking to people which I will call “yetter nods”. The idea is that if you are speaking, and if people are nodding, then you know they are getting what you are saying and are engaged. But if they aren’t having any facial emotions at all, then most likely they are either bored, distracted or confused and then you probably have failed. It’s kind of like a heartbeat that you have to be constantly testing.

  61. Richard

    watch out for grin fuckers though.