More or less

People often use the saying “less is more” when they want to convey the idea that simple things are more effective than things that are fussy or cluttered.

We usually attribute the phrase to the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), but it was was first used in a poem by Robert Browning, published in 1885. I don’t suggest that you read this poem because it’s very long and rather boring. Clearly, Browning did not take his own advice. Mies van der Rohe, on the other hand, was a master of minimalism before they even invented the term.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m a strong supporter of making things less complicated. I think that simple things (especially reports and other documents) are more elegant and easier to understand, but this doesn’t mean that everything needs to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. It’s okay for writing to be nuanced and even quite detailed if it gives the reader a clearer picture of what you are trying to say.

Writing is about clarity. The aim is to get your message across in a way that is accessible, but also appropriate for your audience. You need to make sure that you aren’t talking down to people. This means that using technical terms could be ok, and acronyms might not need to be explained, but you still need to remove information that is extraneous or irrelevant.

No-one needs extra words if they aren’t adding value.

But how do you work out what information is valuable and what isn’t? Here are some suggestions…

  1. Think about your audience. What do they already know? What needs to be explained?
  2. Ask yourself if the information is adding to the story, or is it just interesting to me? For example, I included a lot of information about Mies van der Rohe in an early draft of this post and then decided that I should just add a link. I figured that if you’re interested in learning more about him, you can just follow the link. This leads me to my third bit of advice.
  3. Give readers a choice. You are always going to have readers who like lots of detail, so you need to cater to their needs. This might mean adding an appendix to your report or including links to relevant documents. Just because you want your info uncluttered doesn’t mean that other people have the same requirements. They might want more, so make sure you give them options.

If you’re interested in improving your reports, can I suggest you check out this post by Chris Lysy, an incredible evaluator, cartoonist and designer.

2 thoughts on “More or less

  1. I agree about presentations. I hate it when people have rules like ‘no more than six words on a slide’. It’s ridiculous to think that we can express every idea in six words or fewer. Some concepts are complex and need more explanation, and some are simple. People need to think more about the audience and what they need to know.

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