Want to grow up? Then it’s time to dumb down


SAP - Genius Myth

I’m going to do two things in this blog.

First I’m going to cheer you up.

The second is to massively improve your marketing.

Both will be achieved by making you realise one simple truth:

“Everyone is significantly more stupid than you think.”

And yes, I mean everyone. There are no geniuses. They do not exist. From the prime minister downwards the UK is populated by people with far less intelligence and academic ability than we all seem to suppose.

Let’s start with those MPs shall we?

Recently the Royal Statistical Society tested 97 MPs on their numeracy by asking: “If you spin a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads?”

Half of Conservative MPs got the answer wrong. More than three-quarters of Labour MPs got it wrong.

Shocking? Not really. After all, just because a person is elected to the House of Commons does not mean they get a chip in their brain to upgrade their maths skills. You could award them the Order of the Garter and they’d still be no more educated.

Same goes for economics. Many MPs are amusingly ill-informed. Here’s a wonderful bit of footage of the documentary maker Martin Durkin asking MPs how big the National Debt is. None know. Not even the then shadow chancellor.

Even “intellectual” MPs are rarely what they seem. Take Michael Heseltine, who built a £180m publishing fortune. The truth is that he is dyslexic. He says this of himself:

“One of its consequences is that I would never claim to be well educated. First of all because I am not at all well read, and secondly because I don’t remember what I do read, except in politics or in business. I’ve seen as much Shakespeare as anybody, but I don’t remember the characters. I don’t lack confidence now, because with age I’ve compensated in so many ways, but I do understand how it feels. I wasn’t confident at all when I was younger.”

I could go on and on. John Major got three O-levels and failed to get a job as a bus conductor. John Prescott failed his 11 plus. He’s now Lord Prescott.

David Cameron does not know what Magna Carta means. And he did Latin at Eton.

At the bottom of the pile, a fifth of school leavers are functionally illiterate. The FSA says around 40 per cent of Brits can’t work out a percentage.

And what about at the very top – the academic class?

I spent six years at Trinity College Dublin nurturing a fascination for the theory that everyone was bluffing it. And the more I delved into the histories of the big names in academia the more fragile their reputations looked.

Sir Isaiah Berlin had the reputation for being the most brilliant mind at Oxford in the Twentieth Century. In his early 20s he wrote a three-volume history of Karl Marx.

The truth?

I read this in an interview:

“In 1933 Mr [HAL] Fisher, the Warden of New College, asked me to write a book on Karl Marx for the Home University Library. I said: ‘What is the audience for the book?’ He said: ‘Squash professionals.’ I had never read a line of Marx…”

And so it went on.

Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

“I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.”

Leo “War and Peace” Tolstoy was described as a boy as “both unable and unwilling to learn”.

Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford professor of mathematics, is hopeless at arithmetic.

Stephen Fry summed this up brilliantly in his autobiography. He remarked how terrified he was that someone at Cambridge would ask him: “Excuse me, but do you even know who Lermontov is? Or Rilke or Hayek or Saussure or some other name my ignorance of which would reveal the awful shallowness of my so-called education.”

Superhuman mental abilities do not exist.

The eight-times World Memory Champion Dominic O’Brien said this of himself:

“I didn’t excel at school. Far from it. I got eight mediocre A Levels. I couldn’t concentrate in class and I wasn’t an avid reader. At one point, my teachers thought I was dyslexic. I was certainly no child prodigy.”

He developed his memory by learning formal techniques. Every year at the memory championships the practitioners wait to see if a memory savant will turn up to trump them. They never do. It turns out that even the most “gifted” mathematical prodigies can be beaten by dullards prepared to practice.

So what?

Well, like I said, this revelation (if it is a revelation) should cheer you up. You are not competing against geniuses. Human intelligence is rather limited, and none of the executives or entrepreneurs you meet in your day-to-day life are going to overshadow you with their stupendous IQs.

And your marketing can cheer up too.

The reason firms like Innocent Drinks and Apple are praised for their marketing is because they understand the intelligence level of their audience – i.e. much lower than widely believed.

They pitch to ordinary folk.

Ordinary folk don’t like instruction booklets.

Ordinary folk love pretty colours, and silly slogans.

By contrast, some companies think we are all geniuses. I got a press release this month that I would need an IQ of 190 to understand. Judging by what was being promised, the spokesperson being offered up would need an IQ of 230 to explain it.

This is the danger of living in fear of seeming stupid. It can screw your marketing up.

It’s not just marketing. It boils over into product naming too. If you have a product that is targeted at your nan, name it something in English which your nan will understand. Do not call it the iT7110-Ultra and expect nana to rush to PC World with a bundle of tenners in her hand.

What am I getting at here? Simply this: all marketing should pass this thicko test. If your dimmest mate can’t understand your material in about four seconds then why should your customers? Are they coneheaded geniuses?

No. They are ordinary folk, easily bamboozled and quietly ashamed of their ignorance.

Just like you, and just like me.

Charles Orton-Jones