I met some of my old work colleagues for a drink the other evening and it was lovely to catch up. They’re all super-focussed on their work and full of office gossip, some of which I can’t really follow because I don’t know who everyone is anymore. It still feels weird not being at work, even though it’s been more than a year since I left, but I’m mostly able to fill my days doing something useful, even if it’s just weeding the garden. I sometimes feel like I’m on holiday and one day I’ll wake up and find that I’ve been ordered to return to the office. That would be terrible!
Although I miss the sense of purpose that goes with having a job, I don’t actually miss the work (except for strategic planning meetings which I love). I think choosing your own projects is a lot more fun than having other people decide how you will spend your days, but I’m not very good with deadlines. When no-one is relying on you to finish a task, it’s very easy to put it off until another day. This is especially true when the task is something boring, but I also find it quite easy to procrastinate about doing things I enjoy, such as writing. It’s inexplicable really.
I’m assured by my work friends that they still mention me at the office (which was gratifying because no-one likes to be forgotten), but I was really interested to know what they remembered. They said it usually starts with, “as Marg would say…” and ends with one of the things I’ve been banging on about for years. It’s nice to think that someone was actually listening! It’s a bit like when your kids say something back to you that makes you realise that despite them pretending they were on another planet, or had cotton wool stuffed in their ears, they were taking it in all the time.
It just goes to prove that key messages do actually stick in people’s minds if you keep them short and repeat them often enough!
So here (in no particular order) are the sayings of Marg…
White space is good Give your words room to breathe. White space makes complicated ideas more approachable and easier to comprehend.
Simple is not the same as simplisticThere’s a vast difference between making something clear and understandable and reducing a concept to a meaningless motherhood statement. The most beautifully designed products are incredibly complicated, but easy to use.
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…
Think about your audience. What do they already know? What needs to be explained?
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.
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.
It’s rare that you see such a perfect example of clarity, simplicity and design principles all coming together to such good effect. I stumbled on this website belonging to photographer Thomas Brown and was blown away by its perfect balance, restrained colour palette, and judicious use of white space.
As well as being simple and beautiful, it sends a very powerful message about his approach and the kind of work that he’s interested in doing.
Many people think that simplicity and complexity are natural opposites, but nothing could be further from the truth. You can express very complex ideas in ways that most people can understand if you make your explanations clear enough. You don’t need to dumb down your ideas to make them understandable, you just need to present your ideas in a logical order that people can follow and use examples that people understand and are familiar with.
The opposite of simple is disorganised
When ideas are poorly organised, they look jumbled and confusing. Things can seem a lot more complicated than they really are. Think of a drawer full of stationery all mixed in together. It’s hard to know what’s in there, let alone find the pen you really need. It’s the same with ideas. When they are organised in a sensible way, people feel calmer and are able to absorb ideas more easily.
Use headings to get your ideas in the right order
Getting your ideas sorted into a sequence that makes sense is perhaps the hardest part of writing a document or developing a presentation, but it’s the most crucial step. I suggest drafting a high level plan before you start writing, so that you can get your ideas in order first. This will make the writing easier as you will already have your headings and you wont need to sit there thinking about what to write next.
Try it next time you embark on a new project and let me know how it goes.
I experienced something of a failure this week. I was in a meeting trying to argue the case for making things simple and I failed. It wasn’t that the other people in the meeting didn’t understand the value of simplicity, it was just that the needs of the organisation won out over simple common sense. Those needs revolved around the need to protect the organisation from claims that we had not provided enough detailed and accurate information to the public. In other words it was a ‘butt covering’ exercise. We were more concerned about our legal position than we were about being clear and helpful. My argument that we had a moral obligation to provide the community with clear information fell on deaf ears. It seems that it is better for us to be obtuse than helpful, and it struck me that this was probably a common problem in a range of industries.
I imagine that the disclaimers we need to sign before undergoing surgery are the result of litigation. We need to sign a form saying that we know about every single complication that might occur and that we are willing to waiver our rights to compensation if those things actually happen. This is not about informing the patient, but about protecting the hospital or the doctor. It’s the same at my workplace, even though I don’t work in a medical environment. We are heavily focussed on ourselves, rather than on our clients.
It’s sad though, because it means that in cases where it’s not a matter of life or death, we still focus on protecting our interests rather than helping the community to understand what the issues are so that they can protect themselves. This led me to thinking about how we could argue the case for simplicity, and whether this could lead us to being in a better position legally, simply because we had provided really clear information to the public.
On reflection, here are a few things I wish I had said…
People are less likely to engage in litigious behaviour if they feel that they have been well informed. If you write convoluted product disclosure statements (or terms and conditions) that people don’t understand they are inclined to be annoyed and angry. (I don’t have any evidence for this, but it just makes sense to me).
If you are clear, people are less like to misinterpret the information and are therefore less likely to have problems. (This will protect your organisation).
People will know appreciate that you are making an effort to be clear and will feel more kindly towards you. (There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that people are much more likely to engage in litigious behaviour if they feel that you don’t care).
In essence, the more you show that you care about your audience (by being clear and simple) the less likely you are to face problems. I wish I had said that…
“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:
Get everything out of the drawer and spread it on the bed.
Throw out the things that are old, or worn out, or no longer fit, or you just don’t need any more.
Arrange what’s left into categories: track pants, tee shirts, socks and undies.
Put them in neat piles and return them to the drawer.
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.