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Keep it simple, not simplistic.

February 13, 2010

There is a growing movement among those who talk about and write about presentations advocating a simpler, almost minimalist approach. This shows up especially in guidelines for preparing visual aids, mostly that means the slides we use. This is a central theme of Garr Reynolds‘ books, presentationZen and presentationZen: Design. There’s a powerful reason for this: simple works.

However, I also believe there are limits to how far this approach can take us, especially for the kind of presentations I do, most of which are highly technical, engineering talks. In this regard I have to agree with some of Andrew Abela’s blog comments. Abela essentially says, “Not so fast, some material is inherently complex and some audiences need more than big pictures and a few words.”  Abela’s point is a good one and it matches what I’m often faced with doing.  But I don’t see this as either Option A or Option B, to me this is more like a both-of-the-above situation.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Albert Einstein

The idea in that quote is at the heart of both the power and the pitfall that ‘simple’ represents. Simple should not be seen as an end unto itself, but a means of getting your message across, having an impact. That “no simpler” part is a warning against pushing simple into the realm of simplistic. Simple means you’ve found the core, the essential message and have enough content to get it across–but no more. Simplistic means you’re misleading or incomplete–you’ve left key information out.

The exciting thing is just how powerful “simple” can be. With just this one ‘trick’ you hit all the points of your agenda: help the audience understand, to remember and to act on your message. That’s why it’s worth the effort to get to simple but avoid simplistic.

Next time: what’s the catch? Simple is powerful but not easy!  And just how do we make this stuff simple?


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