Keeping It Simple
One of Peter Drucker’s great virtues was the simplicity with which he articulated management principles. I remember listening to one of his lectures in which he defined “strategy”: (1) understand where your company is today; (2) where you want it to go; and (3) how you are going to get there.
Many books have been written on the subject of strategy. They generally go deep into each of Drucker’s three steps. Very few of them are easy reading, and none of them capture the elegance of Peter’s simplicity. His concept of strategy is actionable and doesn’t take an MBA to understand. Peter’s books were always free of complex charts and jargon. He described his ideas and concepts in understandable language.
Through the years, I have learned the importance of simplicity and directness in presenting ideas and communicating them to others.
Here are some “rules” to accomplish that objective.
Know What You’re Talking About
I learned this lesson well from Ross Perot, Sr., while I was running Consulting Operations at Perot Systems. Ross, who founded EDS and had twice been a Presidential candidate, was then the Chairman and CEO of our company.
When someone brought Ross a proposal in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, he would refuse to look at it or listen. He would instruct the presenter to close the presentation, just talk with him, and tell him in five minutes what the proposal was about and what the presenter wanted.
This required the presenter to know what he or she was talking about, what they clearly wanted, and why – all in a concise way. Ross tolerated no fools, and drove a discipline in the company for every manager to be clear and compelling in seeking approval or making a request. It was not possible to do this unless you knew your stuff.
Forget the Jargon and Code Words
When I first started writing books, I thought my editor was “dumbing down” my ideas. She would always shorten my arguments and use colloquial language that I had never used in speaking. As a consultant, I would make long presentations with elaborate arguments about why I was making a recommendation. I was being too smart. I was also using consulting jargon, expecting my clients would understand. Sometimes, I even bored myself.
Over time, I realized my editor was right. I was using too many words to make a point. If I wanted to appeal to a broad audience, I had to become more concise and direct. And I had to use a vocabulary that would be understood by a broad audience. I also learned that adding a few edgy words out of context helped. Some edginess helped keep my audience’s attention.
I finally adopted a rule of not making more than three arguments to support a point. An audience just can’t absorb more. And it’s easy to hold up three fingers.
Own Your Ideas
There is a tendency to quote authorities in support of your ideas. But referring to someone else in arguing a point can actually diminish the strength of your ideas and who you are. It can distract from what you are saying and make your point too tedious. It can also be risky to quote an authority when you don’t know how your audience perceives him or her.
Of course, if your idea comes from someone else make an honest attribution. But if your idea is original and you believe in what you’re writing or saying, make the ideas yours.
Make Your Ideas Real
When I was on my first book tour, promoting “Reengineering the Corporation,” a journalist asked me how I was going to “popularize” the idea of reengineering. I had never thought of “popularizing” my ideas – after all, I was a serious consultant and business author. Why should I care about the masses?
I quickly learned that I needed thousands of people inside companies to understand what I meant by “reengineering.” It was not downsizing, but the formal definition in our book was too long and cumbersome: “The fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in critical contemporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service, and speed.” Now that’s jargon!
The formal definition was accurate, but it was hard for people to “get it.” So I just started saying that “reengineering was about changing the nature of work.” People got it and understood that their lives would be affected – hopefully for the better.
Just remember that, when presenting your ideas for the first time, your audience may see them as an abstraction – not understanding how they might be affected by what you are proposing. Think about your audience, who it is, and how to make what you are saying real.
Good ideas can get lost in too many words. The best way to be convincing is to keep it simple.