Why You Need To Make It Easier For People To Understand What You’re Saying


Friday, 9.13pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it. – Alan Perlis

Have you ever had to work through your notes of a discussion and turn them into some kind of sense? It’s not that easy to do. You can, of course, just type up what was said but the thing you actually need to do is somewhat more complicated and it is, like so many things are, explained in “Yes Minister” by Sir Humphrey Appleby, as follows:

“The purpose of minutes is not to record events, it is to protect people. Minutes are there to reflect what people thought they should have said, with the benefit of hindsight.”

The challenge we have, much of the time, is not listening to what people say but working out what they mean and what that means in the context of everything else that’s going on. Once you’ve done all that you’ve then got to write it down in a way that gets across what matters.

The way the government do this is unsurprisingly set in a guide on how to take minutes and, on the whole, it makes a lot of sense. But it’s 25 pages long and you might lose the will to live before you get to the end of it. This issue with length is not a new problem. Churchill complained about it in 1940, asking his colleagues and staff to write briefer briefs.


One way to think about whether what you’re doing is clear enough is to start measuring the cognitive cost of understanding what you’re trying to get across. And the simplest form of this is to check whether you have to do anything other than move your eyes to get the information you need.

For example, Churchill’s memo is a single sheet of paper. You can read that in one go, only moving your eyes. If you had to turn the page, however, that would incur a cost – and if you can avoid that you’ll make life easier for the reader.

The same thing goes for models and presentations and all the other things that we use all the time to explain concepts and ideas to people. If you use spreadsheets of any complexity I’m willing to bet you haven’t seen a single one that has all the information you need on one screen. Presentations will spill information from slide to slide instead of chunking what they want to say so that it’s one slide to one idea. And of course bloggers, this one included, use far more words to say something than they really need to.

The problem, of course, is that it’s far easier to make something complicated than it is to strip it down, pare it back and make it easier to understand. I’ve used too many words in this piece already and if I took the time to write it again I’d probably use far fewer words and make it a crisper piece. Even better, if I had to write it by hand I’d use even fewer, because of the cost of having to move a pen instead of pressing keys.

Then again, sometimes people weigh the value of information by looking at the size of the report rather than its content. You feel like real work has gone into producing a tome – even if there is far more work involved in condensing a tome to a few pages. It’s hard to see that just because something you see looks simple that it was easy to get it to that point. It’s often a labour of love – that sort of thing – than something you do for profit – because there’s always more profit in getting the job done fast, even if it’s not as good.

Then again it’s the people who don’t do that who we remember – the ones that create unique and interesting work that lasts for generations.

Or at the very least, is useful for someone else. Maybe that’s what we should be trying to do.


Karthik Suresh

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