Simplicity Sells

It's your job to reduce complexity

Any persuader who has to sell an idea faces a dilemma: simplicity sells, but the truth is usually more complex. Given the increasing connectedness and rate of change, the world is definitely getting more complex, so simple explanations are bound to get something wrong. How do you find the right balance between pure truth and getting your point across effectively?

At one end, are those who lack a grey scale in their persuasive efforts and simplify everything to black and white. Their motto seems to be: “You’re either with me or against me.”

At the other extreme are those who see everything in shifting shades of gray, depending on which perspective they’ve thought about most recently. Their motto seems to be, “on the other hand…”

The best approach for an ethical persuader is somewhere in between those extremes, but closer to the simple side.

Dangers of oversimplification

You may get it wrong. As H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple—and wrong.” I don’t believe that’s always true, but complex issues often have multiple causes, possible solutions, and unintended consequences.

People may not realize the amount of work and depth of thought you put into figuring out the answer. Some things that are hard to figure out may seem obvious in hindsight, a tendency entertainingly highlighted in Duncan Watts’ book, Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer.

Sophisticated audiences prefer two-sided arguments. You will be more persuasive if you present more than one side—as long as you can show why your choice is better.

These are all excellent reasons to make sure you don’t oversimplify, but there are even stronger reasons to avoid the opposite extreme.

Dangers of complexity

You may lose your audience. Ironically, as the world gets more complicated, we have less time and attention span to devote to understanding it. You’re much more likely to hear the old complaint, “I ask for the time and you tell me how to build a watch”. Your audience members expect you to take the time and effort and then boil it down for them.

People prefer simple messages and find them to be more convincing. Even sophisticated scientists believe in Occam’s Razor. That’s because the human mind looks for patterns and gravitates to the simplest ones. In short, most people are lazy thinkers—which is why we respond so well to stories, quotations, and “common sense” explanations.

Too much choice can deter people from making a decision. In a semi-famous experiment, Sheena Iyengar set up a tasting booth for gourmet jams at upscale Draeger’s grocery store. On some days, consumers could sample from one of 24 jars of jam, and on others the choice was limited to 6 jars. They were then given a coupon for a dollar off and could visit the aisle where the jams were stocked. Those who had 24 choices lingered much longer, examined many different jars, and in the end only 3% bought a jar. Of those who saw the small assortment, most made a quick decision and 30%–ten times as many–bought a jar.[1]

(There are at least three other reasons that simplicity is more persuasive, but for obvious reasons I left them out.)

What does this mean to you?

If you want to see an excellent example of how someone found the right middle ground on a very complicated topic, see Einstein’s 1939 letter to FDR urging him to fund research into building an atomic bomb. We can’t all be Einstein, but we can be pretty smart if we follow a few simple ideas:

Be sure you’re right; then go ahead. Intellectuals can always find subtleties in any situation or position, but doers know they have to make a decision and act at some point.

That’s the difference between persuasive communication and simply writing essays. In an essay, you can leisurely contemplate all aspects of the problem is you have the time, inclination or industriousness. But by definition a persuasive communication is meant to change an attitude which results in the action you want them to take.

It’s all about clear thinking, persuasively communicated. If you have the time, and if the situation is complex enough, by all means spend as much time as possible satisfying yourself which way you want to go. Open your mind and apply nuance, depth and doubt during the investigation and analysis phase, but then decide what you want to say and argue it as vigorously as possible. You can’t be an uncertain trumpet. As Churchill said: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time with a tremendous whack.”

But temper your confidence with a little humility. You still need to have some flexibility and openness to new information. For example, if you’re presenting a proposal to your senior leadership, you may be absolutely and resolutely convinced that it’s the right way to go, but they might have knowledge you don’t.

Resist the temptation to show how smart you are by revealing all the complexities. Get your point across; then be prepared to peel back the onion during the Q&A, if necessary.

When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity, especially in presentations. Speaking expert Max Hastings put it well: “…simplify your subject matter beyond the point at which you, as a specialist, feel comfortable.”

Finally, apply the SO WHAT? test to everything you say. Do they need to know it, and why should they care?

Is there a chance that you might gloss over some truths in the interests of simplicity? Absolutely—in fact it’s all but certain. In the end, the choice between simplicity and complexity depends on your judgment and integrity—but you have to take a stand somewhere.


[1] See The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar.

Leave a Reply