At last week’s always-stimulating Hay Festival I attended a talk by an eminent biochemist entitled ‘Demystifying Cancer’. It was basically a PowerPoint presentation and what’s more, the speaker broke almost every rule in the ‘how to use PowerPoint’ book. Lots of slides, too much text, Comic Sans font, clunky clip art and basic animation. Not, perhaps, the recipe for an informative and engaging communication session. However, it was fantastic – a lesson in how to communicate a complex subject and to make the message stick. I left the session with a whole new level of understanding of this massively complicated area. I could explain to my daughter how cells mutate, I understood how tumours form and I felt uplifted by the advances in science. The impact, of course, was because the speaker was so engaging. His well-rehearsed presentation was stunning in its simplicity and compelling in its delivery. But it wasn’t just about the presenter. It was a triumph for PowerPoint too. Yes it was a completely amateurish set of slides, clearly put together by someone experimenting with all the buttons on the PowerPoint task bar, but the content was designed to be simple and in that context, the simple home-made look of the slideware fitted the occasion perfectly. Arrows moving uncomfortably across the screen seemed to work, flashing garish red text highlighted key points beautifully and the shockingly awful clipart images introduced humorous metaphors at just the right time. Well done professor.
Earlier that morning I finished reading a book about ‘simplicity’ and how to overcome the “crisis of complexity” that is sweeping across our lives and workplaces. This is something us communicators can relate to only so well, even though we’re often the ones creating the complexity by communicating too much. Here’s a good quote from the book*: “From jury instructions to user manuals, we’re witnessing an epidemic of over-explaining. This seems to be based on the fallacy that if you provide people with more information, it will yield greater understanding. In fact, the opposite is true: too much information overwhelms people. It creates fuzziness, not clarity. When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention.” Bravo. The book introduces three principles of simplicity – empathise, clarify and distil. We comms people can relate to the second and third but I wonder how much credence we really place on empathising with our audience – understanding other’s needs and expectations. Not enough I think. My next book, also picked up at Hay, is all about Empathy so I’ll read it and report back my findings!
Funny enough, when I returned from Hay I started on a new project. What’s it all about? Simplification.
* Simple by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn