Fluency Theory: It can be smart to dumb things down

To explain the power of simplicity, Daniel Kahneman—in his oft-cited book Thinking, Fast and Slow—describes two mental systems that work together to drive decision-making and behavior. Understanding intuition and cognition can make it easier for you to communicate with people.

The primary system, intuition, kicks in automatically in response to a new stimulus or situation. It generates first impressions, gut reactions, snap judgments and emotional impulses. The cognitive system performs what we call reasoning: weighing alternatives, searching memory for data, processing information, contemplating outcomes, and calculating costs and benefits.

Most people believe that we are guided entirely by reason, but Kahneman describes how intuition and emotion actually dominate most of our mental processes. Cognition comes into play only when we need to “think through” a situation.

Cognition requires attention and effort, which drains people of mental energy. When faced with complex mental tasks, people lose focus and stop paying attention. So they must really care about an issue to “stop and think” about it.

What does that mean for leaders seeking to motivate and mobilize people?

Because of misperceptions about the way people think, many leaders rely on reason to persuade others, ignoring or misunderstanding the primary role of intuition. Purely cognitive approaches—those devoid of intuition and emotion—can waste time and resources on communications that won’t work.

Furthermore, “fluency theory” holds that if people can easily comprehend ideas or information, they are more likely to believe they are true. Anything that inhibits fluent mental processing impedes understanding and trust. This rule applies to ideas, words and images.

Taxing people’s limited store of mental energy can also demotivate them: Throwing unfamiliar words or complex data at people distracts the brain, as it searches “working memory” and attempts to process that new information. People literally stop listening—and miss the whole point. Most won’t invest the energy to figure it out.

To facilitate fluent mental processing of your message, avoid jargon and complicated data. This poses a challenge for experts, who are trained to use specialized vocabulary and quantitative data to explain their ideas.

If you want to connect with non-experts, translate your professional lingo into simple, intuitive statements using everyday language. Be selective with data—focus on one fact or figure that will surprise people and explain the situation in a new and meaningful way.

Telling stories is another powerful way to communicate simply. Narrative allows you to convey complexity more easily than facts or figures do. So communicating your ideas in simple terms and stories doesn’t really mean “dumbing them down.” By facilitating understanding, simplicity dials up the power of your message.