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To Be More Effective, Simplify Your Message

Bill Stainton -- Complexity is the enemy of comprehension. Unfortunately, often we'd rather appear smart than be understood.

"The confused mind says no."

You've heard this before, right? It means that, when faced with too many options, the brain doesn't make any decision and simply shuts down. This is why you will often see well-dressed people standing, zombie-like, in front of the mustards section of Whole Foods. Eventually, a Whole Foods employee will check their wallets for IDs and arrange for Ubers to take them home, where a nice Pinot will bring them back to consciousness.

For those of us who don't have immediate access to a nice Pinot, however, the outlook is grim. Complexity shuts us down. Studies done at the University of Missouri-Columbia suggest that the human brain can only hold three to four things in its working memory (not long-term memory) at once. This has nothing to do with intelligence; it's just how we're designed.

So why do we insist on making things complex? We fill our PowerPoint slides with labyrinthine charts, we fill our websites with endless paragraphs, we fill our articles with sesquipedalian words. And none of it works. None of it is understood. None of it is heeded. Nobody buys the mustard. As Steve McKee, author of Power Branding: Leveraging the Success of the World's Best Brands, says, "Complexity is the enemy of comprehension."

Complexity is the enemy of comprehension. So, once again, why do we insist on making things complex? I think it's because of a basic human paradox:

We'd rather appear smart than be understood.

In other words, we equate simplicity with stupidity-which is stupid. We think that if we simplify our message to the point where it can actually be understood, we'll appear stupid.

And so we obfuscate. We complicate. We muddle.

And we wonder why we're not understood.

Here's a thought:

IF it's important for you to be understood (I'm looking at you, leaders); and

IF complexity is the enemy of comprehension; and

IF the confused mind says no, i.e., shuts down...

THEN perhaps you should find a way to simplify your message.

Let's take corporate vision, for example. Some companies have a corporate vision statement that reads like a legal document. If you ask any employee (up to and including the CEO) what the vision is, they'll point to a thick three-ring binder and say, "It's in there somewhere." Compare that with some of these:

  • "A computer on every desk." — Microsoft
  • "To become the world's most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline" — Southwest Air
  • "Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world." — Nike
  • "To give customers the most compelling shopping experience possible." — Nordstrom
  • "Spread ideas." — TED

Albert Einstein famously said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." (Often misquoted as "If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it well enough.") And if you don't understand it well enough, how can you expect your team to understand it?

If you want to be effective, it really comes down to a (simple) choice:

Would you rather have people marvel at your mustard selection... or would you prefer they get out their wallet and buy a jar?


For 15 years, Executive Producer Bill Stainton led his team to more than 100 Emmy Awards and 10 straight years of #1 ratings. Today Bill helps leaders achieve those kinds of results--in THEIR world and with THEIR teams. For more, visit his site at

© 2020 Bill Stainton

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