Keep It Simple
Avoiding Confusion and Complexity
In a complex world, simplicity is important. With so many things competing for people's attention, the more basic you can make something, the better.
Simplicity is why slogans can be so important. When you hear, "Just do it," you think of the Nike brand and all the things that go along with it – Michael Jordan, air, running, high quality, high performance, innovation, and so on. The power of those three little words can be incredible.
When you see several brochures, which one are you more likely to pick up – the brochure with lots of words written in tiny print, or the brochure with a bold background and only a few key words? The more simple the message, the more impact it can have – and the more likely it will be to attract someone's attention.
So, in this article we'll look at how you can turn complex messages into simple ones using the "Keep It Simple" or KISS principle.
When Less Is More
It's hard to be simple. There's so much you want to communicate, and you don't want to leave anything out. What people tend to forget is that to effectively communicate something, you need to first cut it down to the basics.
Let's look at the following paragraph:
Essentially, the important message that you really need to understand is that less can be quite a bit more. When you think of something like sentence structure, when it actually comes down to it, the fewer words you use, the much better the sentence is likely to be. Pretty much when you have better sentences, you have a much improved understanding.
WHAT? OK, let's reword and shorten that last paragraph to show you simplicity in action:
Less can be more. In a sentence, for example, fewer words can lead to better understanding.
Which paragraph do you prefer and understand better?
The KISS principle is commonly used to communicate this concept. KISS stands for "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Other variations are "Keep It Simple, Silly", "Keep It Short and Sweet" and "Keep It Simple, Sweetheart" (thanks to club member HeatherN for the last, much more humane version!) Regardless of how you spell it out, the message is powerfully simple.
But KISS isn't only useful in communication, it's important in design and thinking: the more complex things get, the fewer the number of people who can understand them. What's more, it's more likely that mistakes will be made, that key factors will be overlooked, or that something will go wrong.
As well as this, a conscious preference for simplicity helps to combat the natural tendency to trip ourselves up by being "too clever for our own good." (Click here for our article on humility if this is a danger!)
The KISS Principle
There are opportunities all around us to practice the KISS principle. Whether you're making products easy to use, streamlining processes, or communicating important information, a simple approach is often the most efficient and most effective.
A question that often comes up is this: "If being simple is so effective, then why don't we see it more often?" The answer is that making things simple is not about reducing or doing less just to get rid of volume or quantity. It's about breaking things down to clarify and get to the real meaning, which takes a lot of thought and analysis.
Simple does not necessarily equal less, and it doesn't mean superficial or dull. Simple is the absence of unnecessary elements. The challenge is to figure out what's unnecessary.
For example, creating charts and graphs may take more effort than writing a summary. Think about the impact of the end result. The phrase "a picture speaks a thousand words" is clear evidence of the power of KISS.
Using KISS at Work
- Be clear about what you want to say.
- Use headings and bullets to stress key information.
- Proofread your work, and take out words and information that don't add value.
Format your communication pieces effectively:
- Use lots of white space.
- Highlight or underline key words and concepts, or use bold formatting.
- Know your audience and your objective, and develop your communication accordingly.
Create simple and effective presentations:
- Keep information short and direct.
- Create visual aids that are clean and easy to read.
- Use handouts to present detail.
- Minimize distractions to keep your audience focused.
Focus your problem solving:
- Use root cause analysis techniques to put the problem in the right perspective.
- Use continuous improvement to simplify your systems and processes.
- Create support systems that encourage people to look for opportunities to improve efficiency. See our article on Kanban and Just In Time for examples.
Remember to stay humble: don't be too arrogant or assertive. Otherwise, when you want to prove yourself, you may risk doing too much. If you don't know when to stop talking in a meeting, or if you try too hard to convince someone how clever you are, you may end up looking foolish.
Show that you're really clever by telling people what they need to know quickly and simply – people who try to stretch or exaggerate their knowledge or skills may take forever to say very little. The volume of what you say, write, or do is far less important than the value you communicate in the process.
Keeping it simple is not necessarily easy. You have to think and plan what you want to say or do, and you have to understand why you're saying or doing it. When you're highly focused on the output or results of your efforts, you can adapt your actions to your specific objective and the elements that are most important.
Details have a time and place. However, if you get stuck in details too early, it can make you less efficient and make your message difficult to understand. By keeping it simple, you can have the greatest impact and create the most value. Don't try to say or do everything – concentrate more on what really needs to be said or done.
When you can change something complex into something simple, you've really added value!
Apply This to Your Life
- Think about situations at the office where you're feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Can you think of ways to simplify how you do the work? Are there any functions or steps that you can eliminate? And does this allow you to delegate work that you'd otherwise have to do yourself?
- When you prepare your next memo or report, remember the KISS principle. Look for ways to shorten and focus your message. Figure out what will capture your audience's attention. Reduce your message to the basics, and let your audience ask questions later.
- When you sit down to solve problems, use the 5 Whys technique as one of your first approaches. Find the root cause, and simplify the problem as much as possible.