The Intelligence of Simplicity

Table of Contents Steve Jobs: Not a Simpleton The Intelligence of Simplicity Why We Like

Presenting complex, detailed numbers prevents your audience from seeing the big picture as quickly and clearly as possible.

To illustrate: “honey, I went to the track and lost twice as much as half of our life savings” buys you a few seconds; “honey, I gambled away our life savings” does not.

Translating numbers into English—the subject of my most recent bookis the art of breaking down communication barriers and getting everyone on the same page. We don’t realize when we’re speaking the language of our profession with colleagues (marketer, aesthetician, or podiatrist), but we can spot it in others.

From your end, you might think you need to speak researcher to prove that you’re part of the tribe. You might think you need all of those columns in the spreadsheet so your boss knows that you did the work. We think it’s necessary. We think it’s how we prove and signal our intelligence.

And then we see someone doing it another way.


Photo by Marcelo Chagas

Steve Jobs: Not a Simpleton

In 2001, Steve Jobs introduced the iPod—a digital music player that could store music in the device. No more schlepping cassette tapes around, or rewinding them with a pencil when the tape got caught in the Walkman. No more worrying that your portable CD player would skip during a jog, or that your CDs would get scratched while being toted around town. 

During its unveiling, Jobs could have listed a dozen ways the iPod trounced its competition—weight, size, decibel range, robustness against shocks, memory (5 gigabytes!). But Jobs stayed true to his history of crafting simple marketing messages. “This amazing little device holds 1,000 songs…” he said onstage. “And it goes right in my pocket.”

“1,000 songs”— it was surprising. Elegant.

And, even better, everyone got it.


The Intelligence of Simplicity

The intelligent brain is an efficient brain.1Ian J. Deary, Lars Penke, and Wendy Johnson. “The Neuroscience of Human Intelligence Differences.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, no. 3 (2010): 201-211. Link.

A physically fit person has an efficient body: they can do more work with less effort. While you might get winded running around the track a few times or pull your back trying to lift 200 pounds, a competitive runner or weightlifter would see that as a warm-up.

Speed and a relative lack of effort—think of Sherlock Holmes coming up with the answer just like that, before you’re 100% certain what’s going on—are the hallmarks of intelligence.

We all understand the rush and satisfaction of understanding something intuitively—getting a new idea with minimal effort makes you feel smart. Wouldn’t you love to know how to make other people feel like geniuses? That’s the power of simplicity.

User-Friendly Numbers

Everyone wants to hold on to their data, complexity, and nuance to come across as smart and show that you’ve done the work.2(You don’t really think of Steve Jobs as a simpleton, after all.)

But we need to start thinking about how our messaging comes across to others. Don’t you want to make your clients feel good?

Why We Like Other People: The Art of Reinforcement

The brain processes social rewards like any other reward—after all, we need them for survival. Think about the opposite of that: people who constantly question our every action, judge, criticize, mock, and belittle us are tiring, creating stressful interactions that attempt to knock us down a peg.

We’re drawn to people who reward us and make us feel good about ourselves. According to one of my favorite books on communication3Owen Hargie. Skilled Interpersonal Communication: Research, Theory and Practice. Routledge, 2021., the main goals served by the skill of reinforcement are:

  1. To promote interaction and maintain relationships
  2. To increase the participation of the interactive partner
  3. To influence the nature and content of the contribution of the other person
  4. To demonstrate a genuine interest in the ideas, thoughts and feelings of the other
  5. To make interaction interesting and enjoyable
  6. To create an impression of warmth and understanding
  7. To increase one’s own social attractiveness as the source of rewards
  8. To improve the confidence and self-esteem of the other person
  9. To display one’s own power as the controller of rewards

It’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in a nutshell: we create rewarding interactions, increasing the likelihood that others will want to be around us in the future, by making other people feel good about themselves.

Simple messages that evoke an “Aha!” moment are rewarding to others.

Instead of just obsessing over their numbers, great communicators obsess over the point of their numbers: expressing an idea.

To find out how to make other people feel like a genius, book me for a workshop.

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