Keep it simple stupid
To appropriate the sentiment of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘third law’ for the present day, technology appears to be evolving at such a pace that for those of us not ‘in the biz’ it might as well be magic. That is to say, the days when the average person could open the bonnet of their smoking car and know what was wrong with it, are long gone. Now you need a laptop and a degree in engineering.
The growing divergence between the sophistication of today’s technologies and the average person’s understanding of them is problematic on a number of levels. For many young tech companies developing exciting new technological innovations, an inability to communicate simply and effectively can represent a significant barrier to success.
At a ‘disruptive technologies’ conference I attended in Cambridge (UK) some years ago, one of the presenters said the technology that comes out of Cambridge was much better than Silicon Valley but it often didn’t make it beyond the pre-seed stage because the people involved were terrible at telling their stories. On the opposite side of the coin, I recently heard an UHNW tech investor admit when he started out investing in tech, he often ended up investing in the companies with the best PowerPoint – not the best companies.
To be clear, this is not just another grumble about techno-jargon (however painful it is to listen to). As technology and our jobs become increasingly abstract and complex, I understand the need for jargon and new words to describe new things or the interaction of these new things. But it should be reserved for specific and specialist audiences and even then, should be used sparingly. This is a call for simplicity and, if possible, a return to good old-fashioned storytelling. The truth is that having a simple and compelling story means you will be able to more effectively court investors and hire the best people.
Our ability to communicate and record complex ideas through language is one of the main reasons for humanity’s success. But that doesn’t mean that the way we use that language needs to be complex. The fact is that most human brains are wired to embrace simplicity not complexity. According to Leonardo da Vinci “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Indeed, the most valuable company on the planet, Apple, has built its entire appeal around simplicity, from user experience to product design to how they talk about and market their products.
Many people think that they will sound clever by talking about complex things in a complex way, but the opposite is in fact true, it just makes them inaccessible. You also run the risk of falling foul of Albert Einstein’s famous remark that: “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough”. Even if you do know what you are talking about people will think you don’t…or they will just switch-off from boredom.
The ability to tell a good story and distil the complex into the simple will give you far more credibility and buy in. It will make you memorable, create an emotional connection and engage people. If you really want a challenge (as ridiculous as it sounds) the acid test is to try your pitch on someone who is eight years old or younger and get them to explain it back to you. If you can do that, your next investor presentation or media interview should be a doddle.
E.F. Schumacher perhaps said it best: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, [and] more complex […]. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”