Bill and Melinda Gates Brilliantly Explain Complex Stuff in Simple Words
“If you can’t explain something simply you don’t really understand it,” Bill Gates recently said. Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates are exceptional educators because they’re passionate about saving lives, solving complex problems, and explaining possible solutions in everyday language.
“Terminology is an occupational hazard of philanthropy,” Bill Gates recently wrote on his blog. “I’ve found this is especially true if you work in an area like health. It is not unusual to be discussing the latest disease research and hear someone throw around words like serum and in vitro (and more complicated ones). Over the years I’ve gotten comfortable with all the terms, but at first I had to keep reminding myself: Serum just means blood without the red and white cells. In vitro just means “in the glass”–as in test tubes. I still go through that process today with different subjects.”
Gates made the previous comment in a review of one of his favorite books of 2015–Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff In Simple Words. The book explains various subjects–from how smartphones work to what the U.S. Constitution says–using the 1,000 most common words in the English language.
Thing Explainer makes Gates’ short list of the best books he’s read all year because Gates is equally obsessed with learning and communicating what he’s learned to galvanize people to action. And Gates cannot persuade if his audiences don’t understand him.
“Teaching’s hard,” Gates once said. “You need different skills to keep students from getting bored.” Bill Gates knows how to keep his audiences from getting bored. In 2009 he released mosquitoes on stage in a presentation about malaria. The next year he brought fireflies on the topic of clean energy. Earlier this year Gates drank sewage water on late night television to prove the effectiveness of a system that turns dirty water into clean drinking water.
These stunts are effective at grabbing people’s attention and keeping them engaged through often dense topics but, in my opinion as a communication specialist, Bill Gates shines when he uses simple language to make the complex understandable.
Recently Gates announced the creation of a “Breakthrough Energy Coalition” of private investors whose mission it is to accelerate progress on clean energy. Gates released a 9-page paper detailing the science of climate change for those who want the data, but he also explained the problem and solution in this brief 2-minute video. The words he uses are remarkably short, simple and free of jargon. According to Gates:
The modern lifestyles we lead depend on a huge amount of energy. The fact that we can make steel, that we have cars, air conditioning, heating, cooking, that’s all based on energy. If you can change the price of one thing to lift the lives of the poorest people everywhere, it would be the price of energy. They can get to their jobs, they can buy fertilizer, they can have lights at night. The energy miracle that’s allowed for modern civilization is primarily based on hydrocarbons–that is, coal, gasoline, natural gas–as we burn and release that it heats up the atmosphere and the heating changes the climate in a way that’s a terrible threat to the poorest people on the planet. We need to fund the researchers who are looking at the early stages of these problems…
I ran the previous section through a tool intended to measure the grade level at which a student should be able to read and comprehend the material. It returned a grade level of 12. However, once I removed the word “hydrocarbon,” the tool returned a grade level of 9, which means the average high school freshman should be able to get it. Notice how Gates took the most complex word in the paragraph, ‘hydrocarbons,’ and defined it using common words–coal, gasoline, natural gas.
Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and equally as skilled as Bill when it comes to explaining complicated issues. Melinda Gates stands out as a communicator because she’s a storyteller, too. Melinda tells stories to put a face to the data. For example, in this TEDx presentation on the topic of contraception in developing countries, Melinda Gates told stories from her childhood, the values she learned from her parents, the influence high school had on her life, and raising her own children. She tells stories of the people she’s met and shows pictures of them on the screen:
Last year, I was in Nairobi, in the slums, in one called Korogocho– which literally means when translated, ‘standing shoulder to shoulder.’ And I spoke with this women’s group that’s pictured here. And the women talked very openly about their family life in the slums, what it was like. And they talked quite intimately about what they did for birth control. Marianne, in the center of the screen in the red sweater, she summed up that entire two-hour conversation in a phrase that I will never forget. She said, “I want to bring every good thing to this child before I have another.” And I thought – that’s it. That’s universal. We all want to bring every good thing to our children.
The cover story of a recent Forbes magazine calls Melinda Gates ‘The most powerful advocate for women and girls.’ An advocate is a person who strives to make a persuasive argument in support of another individual, cause or group. If women in the developing world have Melinda Gates as an advocate they are in very, very good hands. She is passionate, clear, and an engaging storyteller.
I’ve often said that a person can have a great idea, but if that person cannot persuade others then it doesn’t matter. Bill and Melinda Gates have ideas that matter and that’s why their communication matters, too.
This article was written by Carmine Gallo from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.