How Complex Is the Simple? 

A recent article about the Turing Machine described how Alan Turing imagined a “simple” hypothetical machine that could compute any number in the universe that can possibly be computed. This was the very conception of the the modern day algorithms and computers as well as the futuristic Artificial Intelligence.

… And, (did I read it right?) it was a simple idea!

The same can be said about the famous equation of relativity E = mc^2. It is a “simple” expression of one of the most complex concepts of many centuries.

What is this twisted relationship between the complex and the simple? What’s the secret of distilling complexity in a lasting simplicity? This, indeed, is a million dollar question that dictates the differentiation between the mediocrity and the excellence.

Undoubtedly, simpliciy wins the audience and winning the mindshare of your audience is essential for you to share in their economics! Apple destroyed competition (and effortlessly reached into our pockets) by creating iPod and iPhone that “could be operated by a 2-year old child”. My alma mater, the famous entrepreneurship B-school, Babson College, tought us to put together a 3-slide/ 3-minute pitch of our entrepreneurial ideas. We often started with 18-25 slides and took most of us several hours to come up with the final 3 slides that appropriately described our new mousetraps. It surely pays to be simple, but it ain’t easy!

So here are a few tricks that I have found useful to achieve the elucuve simplicity in messaging …

  1. Think big & broad, ignore decimal points. Ignore everything that is beyond the materiality boundaries. 80-20 rule tells us that we can eliminate 80% of the facts from any narrative without compromising its value. So far, in my 3 decades of career, I have not come across any exception to this rule! Back-of-the-envelope (BOEN), Round-number Story, and bullet-point termsheets are some of my most favorite tools to distill the “20” from the “100”!
  2. Do not attempt to address too many issues or solve too many problems in one go. Our desire to find “theory of everything” kills the simplicity. Even while writing a blog, I have to resist an urge to give expression to every thought that crosses my mind or else I will loose you … my audience!
  3. Use steps! We use steps everyday; at home, in the office, or in public places. We do so without giving much thought as to what gives steps their utility value. Steps combine 2 functional features: the “climb” and the “platform”. Platform allows us to get a firm foothold before moving on to the next climb. Steps help us move up without getting exhausted. Similarly, step-at-a-time approach to problem-solving and messaging helps us progress without the intellectual exhaustion.
  4. Refine & Rehearse: never forget that the key to getting your ideas and thoughts across to the audience successfully involves knowing their limitations. Your audience may have low attention span, may be short on time, or may not be technically nuanced. Understanding the perceptual constraints of the audience helps us make our thoughts audible”. But that may not be adequate. I have found it extremely important to rehearse the presentation of my simplified message before actually pitching it to the real audience or else, the clutter in my mind derails the simplicity again!

Distilling complex thoughts into a simple message is important – not just for an investor presentation or a research paper publication; but also in everyday business life that requires today’s executives to read and write numerous emails every waking hour!

Keep It Simple Stupid!

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