“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” - Albert Einstein
In Margin Call, the movie about a bank stumbling its way through the heart of the Global Financial Crisis, there is a perfect scene where everyone at the bank is talking about their dire situation (hint: it’s very bad). Of course, most of them don’t understand how bad it is, so they speak in vague terms to avoid painting themselves as idiots. A few minutes pass while the conversation goes nowhere, and then the CEO cuts everyone off and says:
Maybe you could tell me what you think is going on here. And please, speak as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever.
That line gets quoted all the time, but people often use it in a mean way—an “I’m too smart to understand the dumb things you’re saying, so maybe if you dumb it down more, you too will realize how dumb you sound” kind of way. I am not a fan of that. Along with being not nice, it’s shamefully counterproductive.
We’d all benefit if everyone made a genuine, concentrated effort to communicate more simply—as if talking to young children. So why don’t we? Ego? Surely, part of it has to do with some widely-held fear that using simple language will get you labeled a simpleton. The CEO in Margin Call is unphased by such thinking as he delivers his follow-up:
It wasn't brains that got me here; I can assure you of that.
That line is guaranteed to get a chuckle out of the audience, but the CEO knows the truth: dumbing down is smart. Speaking simply prevents misinterpretation and asking others to explain things simply shows interest and helps get to the crux. Either way, it’s a win-win.
This past week, a handful of writers had a discussion about short-form and long-form writing and which is better to focus on.
I said it didn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter if you’re aiming to be entertaining, educational, or whatever else, and it doesn’t matter if you use hundreds or thousands of words to do it. All that matters is that you’re providing value. There’s a fantastic quote supporting this notion in Nassim Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes:
One of the shortest books I ever read had 745 pages.
The longest book I ever read was 205 pages.
How do you ensure you’re providing value?
clarity x relevancy x density x novelty
If you don’t take the time to distill information, you force others to spend considerably more time parsing as you bumble your words. Plus, how much can you really say you know about a subject if you can’t reduce it to its fundamentals? How much time might you waste focusing on data points that don’t actually move the needle? The distillation process forces you to step away from the endless real-time information stream our world tries to choke us with. Escaping that is critical in order to create ideas that are truly your own, and there’s nothing more valuable than that.
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