085 – Simplicity. Simply Communicating the Complex

simplicitySimplicity is making things simple and keeping things simple. When things get too complicated we lose track, we get bogged down, cluttered, and we don’t accomplish much. My problem is that complicated things fascinate me. We’ve got to stay committed to moving complexity into simplicity, finding the simple truths in things, and keeping the main thing the main thing.

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Simplicity. Simply Communicating the Complex

Simplicity is making things simple and keeping things simple. When things get too complicated we lose track, we get bogged down, cluttered, and we don’t accomplish much. My problem is that complicated things fascinate me. We’ve got to stay committed to moving complexity into simplicity, finding the simple truths in things, and keeping the main thing the main thing. 

Our pursuit for meaning and significance (which significance was the topic for last weeks podcast, episode 084) keeps leading us to simplicity. 

Back in episode 028 we discussed Finding Joy in the Simplicity of a Decluttered LifeIn that episode we talk about how stuff complicates our lives and we can find joy in getting rid of stuff.

Communicating Simple Ideas

Think about the best books you’ve read. There’s a good chance that many of the books were ones you could have written, or at least it seems that way. The book was telling you something you already knew, but in a fresh way, in an inspiring way. 

One of the books that had a great impact on me many years ago is Secrets of the Secret Place, by Bob Sorge. It is a book about prayer and spiritual devotion. The book has 52 short chapters, and each one simply speaks to a different facet of our devotional lives. When I first read the book, and every time I read it, I think, “I could have written this book.” I already knew the stuff in the book, at least I think I did, but he puts it together in such a profoundly simply way, it has benefitted my life. 

Had Bob Sorge made the book difficult, with a lot of ideas foreign to me, it may have challenged me, but it would not have had such a dramatic affect upon my life. 

Think about the social media posts you are most likely to share. They are things you agree with, things that reinforce your view of the world, or something you know stated in a way that resonates with you. You want to share it. What you don’t share are things that confuse you, things you don’t understand, things foreign to you. We share things that ring true to us, things that seem right, things that make simple all of the thoughts that have been floating around in our heads. 

Things we know, things we suspect, things already anchored in our worldview resonate with us because they bring a clarity to what we know or suspect. 

Our lives are so weighed down with complexity, but the answers are always found in simplicity. 

It Has to Fit on the Back of a Napkin

Within the past few months, I’ve heard two different high-rolling, entrepreneurial venture capitalists make similar statements. One said something like, “I don’t invest in an idea unless it can be sketched on the back of a napkin (serviette).” The other said something like, “I don’t trust an idea that cannot be explained on the back of a napkin.” Of course, the reference is to business meetings that often take place in restaurants and the things that get sketched on the back of napkins or small pieces of paper readily available. 

We shun this simple because everyone already knows it—or we assume they do. Have you heard of the curse of knowledge? I first heard of it from authors Dan and Chip Heath in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The concept: When we know something we assume everyone else knows it, so we fail to mention or explain it. We do this all the time. 

Valuable and simple things go unsaid because we do not want to appear too elemental, yet those regarded as the best speakers of all time are the simplest. Billy Graham, whose influence and audience was massive, always preached the simplest and easiest to understand messages, and yet we keep pushing toward the complicated in our mass communications. 

When we walked through the early stages of our grief journey, the LAST thing either of us wanted to hear were the five stages of grief rehearsed and expounded upon. What we wanted were those who survived simply telling us that we would too. 

Last week (in episode 084) we talked about significance. Significance comes when we have lived life well, and things so simple to us are passed on, in simplicity, with all the keys included. To take all of the complexity of life and reduce it to the bare minimum is powerful. 

Stay Focused on thing Simple to You

When you help someone, or speak to a group of people, or write things other people will read, or you coach, or mentor, do not forsake the things that are so simple to you. They probably are not simple to everyone else. The things you are best at, the things you can speak powerfully to the world, they are always the things that have become simple to you. You’ve moved it from complexity to simplicity and now your mission is to deliver the simplicity to others. 

That big complex plan you have… put it on the back of a napkin. You can’t? You’d better! You will not effectively communicate whatever it is until you can put it on the back of a napkin or a small piece of paper, at least not to the hundreds of people you lead, your team, or the people you are inspiring and enlisting. 

It used to be, when I was much younger, when I wrote I used big words. I wanted people to think I knew what I was talking about, and I barely did, so I threw up a smoke screen. When I was much younger and preaching or speaking to a group of people, if I came to the place where I was struggling or I didn’t know enough about what I was talking about I started using big words, hoping the audience would be impressed with my words and not detect my lack of knowledge and substance. Smoke screen, stupid, immature. Communicators want to communicate, they want to be understood, and they use words that every single person in the audience understands. 

Next, beyond it fitting on the back of a napkin, you have to be able to tell a story that connects people to the idea. I don’t want to know about your great idea, what I want to know is why it matters. A story does that. 

Even the Most Complicated Things Must be Made Simple

Can you put your vision on the back of a napkin? Can you explain what you are about and what you are doing on a 3 minute elevator ride? If someone asks you about your project, your direction, your adventure, or your life, do you say, “It’s complicated and difficult to explain.” Or do you tell them in one or two sentences? 

I am astounded at the simple way Albert Einstein explained the theory of relativity. He used a simple formula that told the entire story. A simple formula that anchored all of the concepts into one simple little line. He describe mass-energy equivalence as E=mc2. Contained in those five symbols is the foundation for very complex physics theories and principles. 

I have a coaching and life development framework. It is… well… complicated. After watching a documentary on the life of Albert Einstein, and thinking about the back of the napkin, I was inspired to just keep it to the simple core:

“Get in the Presence of God, a Passion will arise, a Path will emerge, and a Practice will result.” 

Significance Arises from Simplicity

All of my talk about simplicity and significance leads me to say that we make values statements, mission statements, vision statements difficult. We get a bunch of people around a table and we work for month to craft the perfect mission statement, we have a designer make it attractive, then we put it on posters and hang them over the urinals in the men’s toilet. I am assuming they are in the women’s toilet as well. And then we forget about it. 

Simplicity is crafting a way to state the depths of our hearts, getting it down to the back of a napkin, communicating what we are living, so we can all go there together. 

Calibration Tools… Calibrating our Lives and Lifting Those We Love and Lead

  1. What is your “big idea” or vision? How would you explain it on the back of a napkin? On a three minute elevator ride?
  2. What are some things simple to you that may not be simple to others? How does this inform your message? How can you make the things simple to you simple to others?
  3. How can you move your biggest challenges from complexity to simplicity? How can you change your thinking, your processing, and your communication to strip the complexity to get down to the simple challenges and solutions?


I am a complicated thinker. I make life and life challenges too difficult. I have a tendency to create complex solutions to simple problems, and then I leave out the simplest parts of the solution, because to me, it seems so simple that anyone would already know that. 

The answers for me are probably the same answers for other leaders. 

  1. Make the things simple to you simple to others.
  2. Look for the simple way to describe your vision or solution.
  3. Make the main thing the main thing and don’t get bogged down with all kinds of things that really don’t matter so much. 

If you would like to comment on this post, we would welcome your feedback on our facebook page, @Calibrate360