Explaining digital disruption to three-year-olds
As an analyst, I told stories about complex technology, but I learned to tell them simply. When you’re trying to get your point across, that’s essential.
One night in 1999 I was giving my three-year-old a bath. My kid was bright, good with language, and, like Dad, a bit of a smartass. And like many three-year-olds in bathtubs, mine was in good spirits. Here’s our conversation:
Kid: Where do you go during the day?
Me: I go to work, sweetie.
What do you do at work?
I do research and write reports.
What does that mean? What do you really do?
How do I explain the life of an analyst to a toddler? Eventually, I hit on this explanation:
I try to figure out what’s going to happen in the future. And then I write stories about it, so people in companies know what decisions to make.
Well, if there’s one thing that little kids know, it’s that stories are fun. I loved to tell stories; my kid loved to hear them. So the next words from the bathtub were inevitable.
Tell me one of your stories for the people in companies, Daddy.
Hmm. How do I explain the effect of digital video recorders on the television advertising landscape to someone who doesn’t know what business is, what profit is, and how digital disruption works? But television, that was familiar. So I told this story:
Once upon a time there were some people who made television programs. Lots of people watched the television programs. And they also watched the commercials. This made the people who made the commercials happy, so they gave money to the people who made the programs. Those people used the money to make really good programs, so everyone was happy.
One day, some very smart people invented a magical machine. With the magical machine, you could watch the television programs any time you wanted, not just at the time that they were on. And you didn’t need to watch the commercials.
The people who watched television thought this machine was wonderful, so they rushed out and bought those magic machines for themselves. Then they watched TV any time they wanted, and they didn’t watch the commercials.
Unfortunately, this made the people who made the commercials very unhappy. “If no one watches our commercials,” they said, “then we can’t pay to put them on any more.” So they stopped paying the people made the TV programs.
This made the people who made the TV programs very unhappy. “We need the money to make good television programs,” they said. And since they didn’t have enough money, they made bad programs instead of good ones.
Now there were only bad programs on TV. The people who watched TV were very unhappy, because their magical machines couldn’t find them any good programs to watch. The people who made the commercials were unhappy, because no one would watch their commercials. And the people who made the programs were unhappy, because they had no money to make good programs.
So they all lived unhappily ever after.
That’s a very simple story about a very complex industry and digital disruption. And, contrary to what you might think, my kid loved it, because it had a beginning, a middle, and an end; because it was about people and why they act they way they do; and because it made logical sense.
Next time you have to tell a complicated story, think about bathtime. You can tell the story simply. And your readers will live happily ever after.
I’m making you a future offer to do an illustrated version of that awesome story you told your child. Wow.
Nice post. I’ve said before that you ought to be able to explain what you do to children. I’ve explained Big Data to a teenager by using terms and websites that he would understand, not newfangled terms that he would not.