A few weeks ago, the internet went crazy over a letter that US President Trump sent to Turkish President Erdoğan.
One of the criticisms of the letter had to do with its readability score. The letter was written at a third-grade reading level.
This criticism reflected a common misconception.
It confused simplicity and clarity with sophistication.
I’ll leave the full critique of the letter to the political and communication experts. That’s not the point of this article. Nor am I trying to make any political statement for or against the US President.
The point of this article is to talk about simplicity versus sophistication.
In my Rethinking Data and Sharpening Your Point workshops, I stress the importance of simple communication.
While people agree in principal, many push back. Their concern is that if you make something too simple, it will sound like you didn’t put much thought into it. In fact, I remember a consultant once half-jokingly saying, “I put a lot of work into this. I want my audience to feel the pain that I went through”.
In reality, simplicity is the best way to demonstrate thought. Think about E=MC2. There are few people who accuse Einstein of phoning that in.
Simplicity also helps you get your ideas across more effectively. The easier it is for someone to understand what you are saying, the more likely they will get your point.
After all, consider what “sense-making” really is.
Sense-making is when a person’s brain takes something unrecognizable and turns it into something recognizable. The way that our brains do that is by applying biases, assumptions, and pre-conceived notions to the thing they don’t understand. The longer it takes, the more distorted your original message gets.
Being simple reduces the amount of “sense-making” required for your ideas.
But simple doesn’t have to superficial.
My step-dad just turned 90 years old. For his celebration, we each wrote a note about what he has taught us. Here’s mine.
What have I learned from you? Wow. A lot. Over 40 years worth.
But one lesson eclipses all others. That lesson is just to be there.
You were always there. As we grew up. When we graduated. When we got jobs. Married. And when we had kids of our own. You were there to cheer for us, redirect us, and hope for us.
You were there sailing around Lake Michigan in the summers. You were there driving across our national parks. You were there for winter breaks in Florida. You were even way over there when I was stranded across the US-Canada border! (Yes, there was a lesson in that too!)
In each moment, no matter how big or small, I learned from you. I learned to think bold. Not to settle. To live life on the terms that I chose for myself and my family.
I watched you structure your business and career so you could be there for us. You taught me that presence and success were not opposing options. In fact, you showed me that presence was the true measure of success. Of all your lessons, this was the most significant in guiding the choices I made when building my business, career, and family.
The first step to imparting wisdom, providing support, or giving your love is just being there. For you having done that and for the lesson in that, I will always be grateful.
As is my habit with everything I write[i], I ran this note through my readability checker. It’s written at a third grade reading level.
Despite its simplicity, I believe that this note tells a story, has deep meaning, and has the power to move people. In fact, it did just that. My stepdad was quite taken aback by it.
Simple does not have to be superficial.
Your goal should be to communicate simply yet sophisticated. That’s where you will have the greatest impact.
Brad Kolar is an executive consultant, speaker, and author with Avail Advisors. Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication. Contact Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] This entire article, not including the note to my stepdad, is written at an eighth grade reading level.