How to simplify a complex topic

“There is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation – it’s about bringing order to complexity.”  Jonathan Ive – lead designer at Apple.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I agree with this statement wholeheartedly; simplicity is so much more than just removing clutter (although it’s often a good place to start). When I’m asked to review a presentation I often find that what bothers me most is when things “just don’t make sense”.  Sometimes this is because there are too many words, other times it’s because something is missing, for example the link between two related items isn’t clear. Mostly, it’s because the ideas aren’t structured in a logical way.

It’s much easier than you think to bring order to your content, and the simple solution is to sort your information into categories. If you think about it, bringing order to a complex topic is just the same as tidying up a messy clothes drawer.

This is how you do it:

  1. Get everything out of the drawer and spread it on the bed.
  2. Throw out the things that are old, or worn out, or no longer fit, or you just don’t need any more.
  3. Arrange what’s left into categories: track pants, tee shirts, socks and undies.
  4. Put them in neat piles and return them to the drawer.
  5. Congratulate yourself on being a well-organised person. 

It’s exactly the same with a presentation or a document.

Gather all your information together and look at what you can discard and what’s irrelevant. Just because  a piece of information is interesting doesn’t mean it’s useful. Once you’ve got all your content honed down and sorted into related themes, you just need to arrange this in a way that’s logical and makes sense.

Human beings love order and will attempt to make sense of unrelated items; our brains are wired to look for patterns even when they don’t exist. By arranging your content in themes, you provide the audience with a sense of order that they will really appreciate at an unconscious level.

So next time you are faced with a complex presentation or a long report, start by sorting, not by writing. You will feel less overwhelmed by the task and your audience will appreciate the results.


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