A Very Important Secret About Communication (And About Life)

Consider any great marketing campaign — Burger King, Charmin toilet paper, Marlborough. Examine any best-selling, nonfiction book — “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” “What Color Is Your Parachute?,” “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” etc. What do they all have in common? Simple themes. Ideas so simple they can be expressed — and understood — in a few short words. Simplicity is key. But it’s not enough.

For an idea to really take off — to seize the public’s imagination and explode in growth — it must be not only simple but also good. A bad or dated idea, however simply expressed, is still a bad or dated idea. But a fresh new thought stated cleanly can have great power. People hear it and think, “Yes! That’s right! That’s just what I’ve been thinking myself!” Jack Welch, General Electric’s former CEO, understands this: “Simple messages travel faster, simpler designs reach the market faster, and the elimination of clutter allows faster decision-making,” he said. It’s true.

By making machines simpler, they become more widely used. By making work processes faster, more people can do the work with fewer mistakes. By making marketing messages simpler, a greater percentage of the population can respond. One of Hemingway’s biggest contributions to modern English prose (and one of the main reasons for his popularity) is that he managed to convey complex and subtle situations in the simplest of ways. St. Jerome, one of the Catholic Church’s top writing honchos, argued against ornate language. “I have revered always not crude verbosity,” he said in a letter to a friend, “but holy simplicity.”

It took John Huss, the Puritan martyr, quite some time to figure this out. It wasn’t until he was awaiting his death that it came to him. On seeing an aged peasant bringing a bundle of twigs to throw on the pile that would burn him at the stake, he is reported to have said, “O sancta simplicitas!” (“Oh, holy simplicity!”) Don’t wait till the last moment to discover this important truth. Here’s what you can do today: Examine your business’s (or your book’s or your whatever’s) basic idea.

Ask yourself, “Is it good?” If it passes the “good” test (which means it’s sound, useful, and avant garde), ask yourself if it has been clearly expressed. Do your customers understand exactly what it is? Do your vendors? Your employees? Is it translated into a simple sales message — one that can be understood almost immediately? Understood and repeated from memory? If there is any doubt, you should probably do some work on making it simpler.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]