The man who knew too much
Art Silverman discovered poison in something that tasted great. As he tried imagining the upcoming days, his office was slowly filled up with a sweet scent of popcorn. The near future would be devoted to the broadcasting of his discovery. As soon as possible, but comprehensible, no matter what.
Art Silverman worked at the CSPI, an organization in the United States that educates the public about nutrition. Thanks to Art, The CSPI discovered that a medium-popcorn from an average American cinema contains 37 grams of saturated fat. That was alarming, because a normal diet contains only 20 grams of saturated fat each day. As interesting as this discovery was to anyone working for the CSPI, it seemed rather boring and meaningless to everyone else. Art Silverman was aware of that. Information about saturated fat is academic and dull. Not many consumers would be staggered to hear that something contains “37 grams of saturated fat”. The fact that coconut oil was the main culprit seemed to make the story even less interesting and comprehensible. Art Silverman came up with a witty solution that became a sensation on CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN. We’ll come to that solution in just a bit.
Just like the academics
The CSPI is no exception, because organizations and scholars deal with the difficulty of being unable to use jargon when communicating on a daily basis. “Saturated fat” may be clear to anyone with an understanding of nutrition, but for the rest of us, it’s nothing more than a meaningless combination of words. And similarly, what do people do when they specialize in something like organic chemistry? Even when we’re aware of the incomprehensibility that jargon may lead to, we seem to have issues stripping that jargon out of our communication. Because we find it necessary to be accurate. And because, most often, we overestimate our listeners.
The necessity of simplicity
7 out of every 10 positions are filled without any vacancy ever becoming publicly available. A new employee is usually found because someone within the company happens to know a suitable candidate. It shows the importance of ensuring that others, both within and outside of our fields of work, know what our knowledge is and what our skills are. Friends and acquaintances are often a bridge towards a job, provided that they know which jobs are suitable. The question “what do you do?” is too often answered with a vague answer. Not because we’re not sure about what we’re doing, but because we have trouble explaining it without slang.
How it’s done
A proper answer to the question “What do you do?” should, in the first place, be understandable. Great speakers are capable of giving away only the very of the answer. There’s no need for details. Whoever studies Aphasiology is interested in the influence of brain damage on language. Contemporary History is all history from the start of the 19th century untill now. The master Clinical Psychology educates you to become what the average person classically defines as a psychologist. Simplying your answer might make your message slightly less accurate, but it will also make your message clearer. Having knowledge that the listener doesn’t possess makes it more difficult to take the perspective of the listener. Hogarth called it “The Curse of Knowledge”. In almost any situation, we tend to overestimate the listener’s ability to comprehend our message. Chip and Dan Heath offer a great explanation in the Harvard Business Review.
Back to Silverman
Art Silverman and the CSPI called a press conference on September 27, 1992. Silverman was worried about his discovery, but what worried him even more was the seemingly impossibility to explain it. As you might expect, the CSPI chose to be clear.
“ A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined! ”
The employees of the CSPI took the effort to visualize this statement. On the table next to Art Silverman was all the food that Silverman had mentioned. Together it symbolized the ultimate unhealthy day; just as unhealthy as a single medium-popcorn from an average American cinema, to be precise. CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN featured the story, while newspapers such USA Today and The Washington Post put the story on their front pages. Sales plunged and the American cinemas felt obliged to react. As of 1992, popcorn is made in healthier types of oil.