Don’t Talk Down to Me!Jul 1, 2010 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen
In school, we’re taught that we should write at a sixth to eighth grade level when writing for the general public. Newspapers have historically required their writers to write at a low grade level, and in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper“, author Philip Meyer argues that newspapers are struggling, in part, because “Many newspaper stories are too hard to read”. Meyer arrived at this conclusion by measuring thousands of newspaper articles with the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. He found that only a quarter of the articles were written at or below the eighth grade level. As a point of comparison, the Flesch-Kincaid grade level for this post so far is 10.4.
Of course, readability is just one element of simplicity. We praise students who are good at communicating complex topics in simple language, and Albert Einstein even said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” But I’m worried that all of this talk about simplicity may be missing the point.
Tyler Cowen is an economist at GMU, and a founder of the hugely popular “Marginal Revolution” (MR), an economics blog I’ve enjoyed for several years. Cowen and blog co-author Alex Tabarrok consistently post on complex topics and never “talk down” to readers. Despite this,the readership has steadily grown,and MR boasts some of the most engaged and thoughtful commenters on the Web. In fact, Cowen sometimes writes posts he knows will be above most readers’ heads. Far from repelling or discouraging readers, most find this challenging and inspiring.
One could argue that MR has a unique audience, and Cowen certainly wouldn’t disagree, but I’ve noticed a similar pattern in other places. Our team runs a couple of large conferences each year: the Professional Developer’s Conference (PDC), for developers, and the MIX conference for Web developers and designers. Attendees can turn in session evaluations for each session, including verbatim comments, so we can evaluate speakers and topics. If we’ve learned one thing, it’s this: if you talk down to attendees or make your content too simple, you’ll be slaughtered in the evaluations. But if you challenge the attendees, you’ll make them happy, even if many find your content hard to follow.
Making Grandma Work for It
Does this mean that blog readers and conference attendees are vain posers who need to be treated like “big kids” to feel good about themselves? I don’t think so. Over the past few decades, research into a phenomenon called “contrafreeloading” has provided some clues that help explain why people don’t like being talked down to. In short, “contrafreeloading” means that animals, including humans, prefer to work for their food if given the choice between completely free food and identical food that requires work to obtain. There are only two exceptions to this rule: housecats and economists are both perfectly rational, and will happily freeload when given the chance.
The implications are clear. If it’s a topic she’s interested in, Grandma will prefer to work things out for herself rather than be spoon-fed. Don’t water things down, and don’t talk down to her!
What do you think? Do you have situations where spoon-feeding is definitely the right thing to do? Or have you had spoon-feeding backfire on you? Leave us a comment below.