Once upon a time, when I was a child in primary school, I distinctly remember our teacher telling us – “Your notes must be neat, tidy and most importantly, understandable to anyone visiting the school that may want to look at them.’ This sentence stayed with me ever since and often comes back to my mind and served me well more often than not. Understandability can mean many things. To me, a core tenet of it is the power of simplicity.
Yet, I am surprised at how often speakers and leaders forget the sheer power of simplicity.
Learning simplicity with pizza
Despite what my teacher told us all these years ago, I often over complicate things. For a long time, I assumed that complexity was a good thing and would prove the superiority of an argument. I made this mistake when starting my executive leadership journey in my organisation. My first role was all about growing the organisation, and as it was all about numbers and strategy; I was in my element. The most challenging part of my role was motivating hundreds of leaders to adopt a growth mindset. Effective communication was essential to achieving this, but my messages lacked simplicity and didn’t always catch on. During a chance conversation, one of my peers mentioned her successes with motivating leaders in her District by using pizza.
I sought to replicate her success and designed a new incentive whose prize would be receiving £50 towards pizza. What happened next surpassed my expectations. Within days of the incentive launching, people came back to me with proof that they had done what I expected of them and requested their pizza. News of the incentive spread like wildfire, and I even had leaders replying to my emails, asking for more information about the initiative.
Simplicity is what made this initiative so successful. The prize was easy to understand to anyone. What one needed to do to win a prize was easily actionable. Finally, a lot of communication around this initiative used colourful graphics which could be understood in seconds.
Simplicity makes communication easy
The biggest advantage of simplicity is that it makes communication much easier in many different ways.
Firstly, simplifying a message will make it easier to understand. Messages which are easier to understand will appeal to larger and broader audiences. This is essential if you need to gain the support of others to help with a task that they may not be familiar with. It is also essential if your ideas are niche and can’t be understood outside of your field of specialisation. In my experience, the larger and the broader the audience, the more simplification is needed. When leading my District, I had to ensure that hundreds of leaders with varying degrees of familiarity and knowledge of their roles understood what was expected of them.
Secondly, simple messages will spread more widely than more complicated ones. This point is crucial for leaders who wish to turn visions and complex strategies into reality. To be embedded amongst a group of people, a vision needs to be constantly repeated and reemphasised. The larger an organisation is, the wider messages will need to spread and the higher the need to cascade them through multiple layers of leadership. Simpler messages will have a lower chance of being misunderstood and will therefore more likely to be passed on without losing their meaning. Let’s not forget too that we humans learn everything, be it someone’s name or a new language, through repetition.
Thirdly, a lot of communication is now done through images and video. An image is often worth a thousand words. Striking and attractive images can grab attention on social media channels and other mediums. While using graphics and imagery can in itself be a good way of explaining a complicated concept. Simple messages will be easier to translate from text or speech into images or pictograms. In short, a message which is easy to understand will be easy to read, hear, see, visualise and imagine.
How to achieve simplicity
To create, convey, or construct simple messages or strategies. Several tactics are at your disposal and they can be used alone or in combination with one another.
Less is more – Here you will simplify what you are seeking to do or communication by cutting it down in size, until only the essence of what you are looking to do remain. If your message takes a paragraph to explain, cut it down to two sentences and then to a single short actionable sentence. The short sentence of the pizza challenge I mentioned earlier was “Renew, retain, win!”
Eliminating questions – The goal of this approach is to look at what you are trying to achieve and to come up with as many questions as possible on it. Then work to make your message, strategy or vision so self-explanatory that it answers all of these questions at once. While it will mean reducing sophistication and aiming for the lowest common denominator. The effects of this approach can make it very effective at spreading a message in a large organisation.
Would a child understand? – This approach is especially suitable for speakers looking to pass on complex messages to non-technical audiences. It can also be used by leaders looking to influence a large number of people. The goal here is to create something that could be understood by a child or a young teenager. It will mean using simple language, making any benefits tangible and easy to visualise (like pizza!), and creating powerful visuals to trigger child-like curiosity.
Some closing thoughts
Is simplicity easy to achieve? Not at all, and I am still guilty of over-complicating things sometimes. I recently learned a lot by observing my colleague and fellow leadership expert Elena Paweta. She recently came up with a really simple yet effective way of training dozens of people very quickly. Very often complications arise as a result of a lack of focus from speakers and leaders. Indeed, the best way to confuse others is to be confused and unclear oneself.
“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex…”Steve Jobs