02 Apr Make it simple
Explaining complicated things in a complicated way tells nothing about abilities. Explaining complicated things understandably does. That’s why I get pissed off every time I see a professional being mocked at for speaking too simply.
Popularisation is effective yet undervalued work. It is needed when the world is not ready for new ideas. Especially for a forerunner there is hardly a better tool than popularisation.
Popularisation is not to be mixed with populism. Populism is a political doctrine that proposes that the common people are exploited by a privileged elite. Popularisation in turn is giving complicated and often scientific phenomena an understandable form.
Popularisation aims to making information more accessible for greater audiences. This article–as my whole blog–is a perfect example of popularisation. That is also why so many “serious” professionals belittle my writings.
Let’s take an example.
Jarno Limnéll is a Professor of Cybersecurity at Aalto University, Adjunct Professor at Tampere University of Technology, VP at Insta Group Plc, Doctor of Military Science, Master of Social Science and an officer (captain, ret). Based on the merit list you’d expect Limnéll to give extremely precise and in-depth statements that are as understandable to outsiders as popularising is to a professor.
However Limnéll gives relatively plain interviews stating that “Finland is highly dependent on electricity and without electricity our data systems won’t work.” Equally little he sounds like a professor when saying “Safety is reality, in other words the way things are.” On top of all that Limnéll has a blog on a yellow press website, where he writes nearly pseudoscientific claims such as “The true Finnish mentality (sisu) can only be understood by a Finn.”
Doesn’t sound too in-depth. Which is why Limnéll is the one to get called when a journalist wants to understand cyber security: an ideal interviewee knows the matter in hand but also expresses oneself understandably.
Finland is a small country and the Finnish security scene is even smaller. I know renowned security professionals who shun Limnéll because of his habit to popularise. No longer than two weeks ago I was asked what I think of him. The question’s undertone didn’t say it directly, but contained a suggestion: “He talks like he’s talking to small children.”
Let’s take another example.
The public discussion about digitization in Finland is pretty much to thanks to Ville Tolvanen. When he first brought up the topic in 2013, hardly no-one was interested. In practical terms not a single person googled digitization in Finland before that, but since 2014 the number of Google searches for the term has increased nearly tenfold.
Of course digitization would have entered Finland even without Tolvanen. But in that case the phenomenon could have been driven by others than our countrymen. One could philosophise till kingdom come, but a cold fact is that Tolvanen created a movement and a market that didn’t exist before. In the year 2016 the organization he built, Digitalist Network, had more than 100 000 readers, more than 5 000 event attendees and a partner network with over a 2 billion euro turnover.
Tolvanen wrote 1 000 blog posts because he wanted to stimulate discussion for digitization. He used accessible language and succeeded. More and more Finnish companies now have digitization in their strategies, and even the government has named digitization as one of its most important projects. Yet there are those who drag Tolvanen down and make fun of him. As if one shouldn’t talk about digitization if one doesn’t have a life-long track record on coding.
Third and last example.
Dick Seger is Sweden’s Steve Jobbs. 29 years ago he started a project that years later grew up to be Europe’s biggest security company and the second biggest in the world. Along the way his position as a general manager was taken away four times, but he always came back.
A few years ago Seger told about the first years of the project. He used to do telesales in the evenings, pack alarm systems by nights and post them in the daytime. Seger revolutionized the market with one simple idea: an alarm system should be affordable. Cheaper prizes would enable common men to have an alarm, but subsequently because of a growing market, also a profitable business model for low cost alarm systems. Seger was a visionary and took the risk.
Three decades ago Seger’s alarms were called mickey-mouse-systems because the “hard-core professionals” didn’t think the alarms were heavy-duty enough. Now those same alarm systems protect more than 2 million homes, and the company can handle more than 100 million alarm signals per day.
It goes without saying that I’m a big fan of Dick Seger. But there is one thing that will be stuck in my mind forever.
“You can’t work on the exceptions. They are extreme and beyond.”
The year was 2009. Dick Seger and the other Swedish heavyweight managers had paid a visit to tell us Finnish simpletons what the future would bring along. The usual Finnish way is to not ask questions, mostly because we tend to be ashamed of our language skills or afraid of our career development. I’ve never had these features, so I fell into an open debate with Dick.
My argument was simple: “If I was the customer, I would never think that way.” Dick’s counter-argument was disarming and one of the biggest lessons of my professional career. “You can’t work on the exceptions. They are extreme and beyond.”
What did this hidden gem mean?
Revolution doesn’t happen in a small circle. If Jarno Limnéll would only talk about block chain based verification, it would only improve security for those who already are lightyears ahead of all the others. If Ville Tolvanen would only speak of post-internet era, not a single company would ask him to shape up their strategy for this year. And if Dick Seger had only talked about solar panels with the size of a matchstick head (as happened in 2012 near Stockholm), there would be 2 million homes less with proper fire safety in this world.
Popularisation is a necessity. If a visionary painted the pictures that he sees, he would be considered delusional. But when new and unfamiliar matters are made understandable using analogies and metaphors–the kind of images that even a child can understand–they start to spread.
Supply creates its own demand especially when the need is yet to be recognized. Even if the HC professionals might look down to you, it is justified to keep continuing with the simplification. Repeating an understandable popularisation is the only way to bring forth something new.
All these three examples are united by one characteristic: Limnéll, Tolvanen and Seger are all visionaries on relatively technical industries, but none of them are particularly technical as a person. They have all popularized their business into the attention of a wider audience. They have all been shied away by the engineer people. And they have all repeated their childishly simple message for years.
The opposite of deathly hush is to talk into a living.
What is talked about will turn into a phenomenon. That is why popularisation is needed. The future is unknown for most of us, and it is up to those who know the future to explain it.
True visionaries speak to their audience as loving parents to their children: understandably and patiently. Even if the listeners rebel, one keeps on educating them for the future–not to strengthen one’s own ego. Because that’s the only way to build new and get understanding to spread.