How to sell an idea: Seek informed simplicity

“We must strive to reach that simplicity that lies beyond sophistication.” -John Gardner

Too often we think simplicity means simplistic. Lacking in intelligence. Stupid. And when we’re trying to convince people of our way of thinking, the best way to do this is to prove what we know by showing complexity in agonizing detail and then beating you over the head with it until you’re convinced. I’ve found spreadsheets and slide decks work well for this purpose.

We complicate. We use big words when small ones would do. And along the way we forget why we’re here: To communicate to an audience and compel them to act.

In my experience, those who have been most effective at selling an idea are those who build from absolute truths we all know. They take complexity into account without letting it distract. They help their audience reach the same conclusions they did. And once the audience understands the concept, it becomes much easier to fully grasp the complexity underneath.

In other words, we can be most effective not by showing how much we know, but by helping our audience see how much they know.

In the outstanding book “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School,” Matthew Frederick identifies what he calls the Three Levels of Knowing:

SIMPLICITY is the world view of the child or the uninformed adult, fully engaged in his own experience and happily unaware of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

COMPLEXITY characterizes the ordinary adult world view. It is characterized by an awareness of complex systems in nature and society but an inability to discern clarifying patterns and connections.

INFORMED SIMPLICITY is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded upon an ability to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.

I would assert that our jobs as communicators is to create the clarity and voice of informed simplicity. To collect our data, lay it out so you can see everything at once, find the organizing principles to help sort the information, find the patterns, then relentlessly simplify.

The relentlessly simplified idea is the one with the most potential to convince. An idea that everyone can understand, relate to, act upon, and most importantly, share so others can act on it, too.

Recommended reading:
“101 Things I Learned in Architecture School” by Matthew Frederick


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