What John Oliver can teach us about communication

What John Oliver can teach us about communication

Pep Rosenfeld is co-founder of comedy theater Boom Chicago and Boom Chicago Creative in Amsterdam. He loves both nerd chic and chic nerds, and can be seen hosting events where they meet — like #TNW2015.


With his piece last week about surveillance and Snowden, John Oliver officially crossed the line from helpfully informative comedian to comic journalist doing the work journalism can’t quite seem to get done. He makes the vegetables of dull information into tasty desserts of comedy that people hungrily gobble down, share and post.

If Steve Jobs was a modern day Prometheus, distributing the fire of technology to non-nerds, John Oliver has become the Instruction Manual of Prometheus, helping people figure out how to use the fire without getting burned.

Not that he deals exclusively with tech news. He deals with all kinds of news. And news, let’s face it, is the vegetable that so many of us hold our nose and eat, or get exclusively from that angry red-faced grocery guy from Indiana who keeps scrawling “Cruz 2016” on the green peppers and won’t sell lettuce to that nice gay couple.

There have been a couple of great pieces that dealt with science specific topics, like Dr Oz and health supplements or net neutrality where he actually harnessed the power of trolls to make a difference. But he also tackles big non-science issues like the lottery, prisons and the NSA’s ability to use surveillance programs to see pictures of your junk.

In each case he did the seemingly impossible: made an inaccessible topic not just accessible, but entertaining. And more than that, he made it actionable. He doesn’t just complain, he gives viewers an outlet to try make a difference, even if it’s a just a hashtag with which to shame some douchebag hiding behind unawareness. It’s like a TED talk that actually tries to accomplish something. Ideas worth spreading, meet actions worth doing.

How does he do it?

It’s a simple three step process:

  1. Understand a complicated topic.
  2. Boil it down to a simple — but still accurate — explanation that makes it easy to understand.
  3. Find a simile that makes it not just easy, but fun to understand. Preferably a simile that involves weed, an annoying family member whose picture you can yell at, (“Fuck you, Aunt Clara!”), or a penis.

And in simplifying this process, I mean it no disrespect. On the contrary, I believe John Oliver does this better than anyone else, and that what he’s doing is a public service. There’s nothing better than making a complicated idea digestible and giving it traction than comedy. And he is fucking hilarious. I wish he would come over and do 20 minutes on how to install new RAM into my PC and how to deal with my crappy WiFi once and for all.

I appreciate this because it’s my day job. At Boom Chicago Creative, we know that comedy opens a door of communication that might otherwise remain firmly shut. We use it to help companies tell their customers and employees good news, bad news, and any message in between.

Video thumbnail for youtube video John Oliver Sics Trolls on the FCC Over Net Neutrality

I was once asked to “help management” to “prepare their people” for a round of “downsizing.” No lie. What we didn’t say: “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Not you anymore; you’ve been made redundant.” Or “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Terry from Security. He’ll see you to the front door…”

So what’s the actionable idea here? You can do this too.

You can be the next John Oliver.

Well, not really. Neither can I, no matter what it says in my dream journal. But we can all use simpler language and easy-to-grasp similes to make tech points more accessible to your audience. Because we want normal people to understand, right? Speak to non-nerds in their language; references to House of Cards and the Kardashians’ butts.

So be like John Oliver. Teach by simplifying and simile-fying. And Mr Oliver… you’re working with Prometheus now. Watch your liver.

Postscript: To be fair, (his favorite transition), John Oliver got one thing wrong about Net Neutrality. He didn’t trust Tom Wheeler. Oliver said nominating a former cable company lobbyist as FCC Chairman was “the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.” But Wheeler is not the Cable Companies’ whipping boy. He does what the Cable Companies want and expect about as much as Frank Underwood did what President Walker wanted and expected in Season 2.

Read Next: Better Call Lowell: Ted Cruz, Disney World and Net Neutrality

Picture Credit: KAZ Vorpal, Flickr

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