Robert Krulwich on Explaining the Simple ‘Very Simply’

A respected TV and radio correspondent with a knack for making the complex understandable finds a case in point in a Web comic explaining NASA’s Saturn V rocket. Lessons here for climate communicators.


Communicating complex subjects simply so more people will understand them isn’t good enough for radio and TV correspondent Robert Krulwich.

“How about Very Simply?” he asks in a recent blog post. Krulwich, known for making the complex understandable for the many, blogs that he often hears from people say that sophisticated science subjects should be discussed in sophisticated language. The public should “knuckle down” and learn what those terms mean … “That’s how we’ll know when we’ve learned something: when we’ve mastered the technical words.”

Except he’s not buying it. Not by a long shot:

Fancy words are nice if you’re feeling fancy. But suppose all you want to do is understand how something works. The technical vocabulary would let you talk to other technicians, but if you’re just exploring for yourself, if all you want to do is get comfortable with the complexity, you don’t need expert words; you need words that translate easily, words that make personal sense to you.

He points to a recent comic to make his point. It’s a comic “explainer” written by Web comic xkcd author Randall Munroe about NASA’s “world’s heaviest, tallest, most powerful rocket, the Saturn V.”

“A tower of technical complexity,” Krulwich wrote, but Munroe decided to annotate his drawing using only “the ten hundred words people use the most often.”

Foolish and counterproductive at this point to, in effect, describe a screen shot of a photo of a painting of a sculpture. Instead, see for yourself how Munroe used those “ten hundred words people use the most often” to make the complex understandable:

When Krulwich and/or Munroe turn their talents to climate change, (Hint, hint…we hope soon.) we’ll share word of that happy day with you.

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