Is Keeping It Simple, Stupid?

Most of you know Occam’s Razor:

The principle of parsimony or law of parsimony or the problem-solving principle that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”,or “the simplest explanation is usually the best one.”. William of Ockham, a scholastic philosopher and theologian who used a preference for simplicity to defend the idea of divine miracles. This philosophical razor advocates that when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions, and that this is not meant to be a way of choosing between hypotheses that make different predictions.

Every single startup pitch I have ever heard, every single piece of advice on communications, in fact, almost everything seems to try to follow this tenet. KISS, or “keep it simple, stupid.” Simplify, simplify, simplify – is cried out at every turn. We think that everything is too complicated and needs to be even simpler and simpler.

Your writing is too erudite – you need to write for a lower grade level. It’s not accessible enough. Make it simpler. I could go on. I’ll bet you’ve seen the same thing in everything you do – “that is too complicated,” “simplify it,” “dumb it down,” “we need it ready for the lowest common denominator,” etc., etc.

I’m sure that you’ve heard this throughout your career. Everything needs to be simple and easy to understand.

There are two problems with this approach. First, and these are BIG problems.

First, reality itself is not simple. Human beings are not simple. The world is an incredibly complex place, and it’s getting more and more complex by the day, the hour even. It’s not just being complicated by technology but by changing social mores and society. Despite the call to place people in simple binary “slots,” human beings are incredibly complex creatures living in a very complex world. Trying to simplify things in this complex world will lose the essence of what you are trying to present. Presenting a simplified version of anything risks eliminating the most important elements of the thing, and in many cases, does just that.

Secondly, the act of simplification requires you to make judgment calls on what is and what isn’t important, keeping some elements and discarding others. When you do this, you change the nature of the thing that you are trying to portray. Simplification is a distillation, and in this distillation, you will find those important elements in the original are lost. Running these through a human filter can insert biases and other things, both intentional and unintentional.

How do we solve this? How can we present information without simplification? In two ways:

One, we have to discard simplicity for elegance. To see an example of this, you only need to look at a well-written complex drama and compare it to something simpler. There are plenty of examples of very well-told intertwining tales that can be complex but wrapped up with no loose ends. Unfortunately, there are many more examples of the opposite, but the fact that the former exists means it is possible to depict complex systems to be understood elegantly.

Two, we need to stop assuming that our audience is dumb. Humans beings have an amazing brain with a phenomenal capacity to observe, think and understand. Instead of assuming that everyone reading is uneducated and you have to tailor your message to this level, make your audience stretch their brains to work to understand. While I typically tell businesses that they have to go to their customers, in these cases, assuming the intelligence of your customers and expecting them to use their own thinking skills to understand your more complex and reality-based message might be a welcome change.

TL;DR: Give your audience the benefit of the doubt and allow yourself to communicate complexity so that you don’t lose the nuance of reality in your communications. Maybe the simplest solution is NEVER the best.