The Single Most Important Thing we Must Do

Everything should be made as simple as possible  but not simpler.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

[attributed to Albert Einstein]

    It's the most attractive value proposition making things simple. Simplicity takes more work. Simple is not the same as easy. But it's worth it, because people will remember it. The reason we like compact stories is they are memorable. We like summaries, and we like to simplify, that is to reduce the dimension of things.

    We store patterns in our memory so we no longer need to memorize all the information. My elementary school teacher taught us a very short story to remember all the Alps by name. The letters of each part of the story are the initials of a group. To this day, when I recall “ma con gran pena le reti calo' giu',” I know they are Marittime, Cozie, Graie, Pennine, Lepontine, Carniche, Retiche, Giulie (Italian names) without looking them up.

One thing

    If we're someone with a message to communicate, we'll want to to talk in terms of the single most important thing, give people an anchor, and repeat it in the beginning through a story (or more) and at the end of a message.

    To do that, to speak in terms of simple, we must find the core idea. For companies, a core promise can be the tagline. In business, a tagline is a catchphrase or a small group of words combined in a special way to identify a product or company. Entrepreneurs embed the core promise in their product names:

  • Chris Guillebeau's “Side Hustle” and “Travel Hacking Cartel”
  • Jeff Walker's “Product Launch Formula”
  • Ryan Levesque's “Ask Method”

    Simplicity is what makes brand slogans stick over the years, sometimes even long after the business has moved on. “Just do it.” (Nike), “Think different.” (Apple commercial, 1997), “Shave Time. Shave Money.” (Dollar Shave Club), “Because you're worth it.” (L'Oréal, 1970s), “Got Milk?” (CA Milk Processor Board, 1993), “There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard.” (MasterCard, 1997), “A Diamond is Forever.” (DeBeers, 1948), “Imagination at Work.” (GE former slogan, 1979), “All the News that's Fit to Print.” (the New York Times, 1890).  

    Our heads afford us limited storage space, we are limited by time and most importantly, we have limited attention spans. Which is why we tend to summarize, to put things in order, or stack rank them when making decisions. Going back to the taglines and product names above, we also note they are compact.

   Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  Slogans are the words equivalent of design. It was Dan Pink who said that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Read more at:

Little flags

    Short sentences have made their way to us over the years, even centuries, in the form of quotes, verses in poems, and proverbs. In Made to Stick Chip Heath and Dan Heath say, “Proverbs are helpful in guiding individual decisions in environments with shared standards.”

    According to Cervantes, proverbs are “Short sentences drawn from experience.” For example, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” carries its meaning internationally with versions for different cultures. In Sweden, “Rather one bird in the hand than ten in the bush,” Czechs say, “a sparrow in the fist is better than a pigeon on the roof,” in Italy we say (literally), “Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow.”

    Simple is the product of a compact sentence drawn from long experience (the core).

    But not everything we need to remember can be made so simple. For raw data, we want to substitute concepts. This is something that helps us point to the information, like a little map in the terrain of our memory. We put flags in, which can help us find our way.

Brain adjustment

    Another way to convey something complex simply is by using schema. From psychology, schema is a “collection of generic properties of a concept or category.” It's as if we drew a diagram or created a framework for an idea in which to tuck more information. We organize the information to build the idea.

    For example, “sports car” evokes a certain image in our memory a two-door, red, low to the ground, fast vehicle. My reference is Ferrari, but there are enough sports cars with similar characteristics to make it work for many people.

    A particular kind of schema is the analogy. In Hollywood, and now in Silicon Valley, they pitch ideas by referencing something known. For example, Speed was “Die Hard on a bus,” Alien was “Jaws on a spaceship,” 13 going on 30 was “Big for girls.” They call them “high pitches.”

    Some analogies are so good that they create new perceptions and explanations. For this reason, psychologist Donald Schon called them generative. For example, Disney calls employees “cast members,” and all communications reference the metaphor, starting with Mickey's Ten Commandments.

    Proverbs and metaphors help us substitute something easy to think about for something difficult to remember. But we should watch for trying to simplify concepts too much because the same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it actually is.


     Made to Stick is an excellent primer to learn how to craft a story people will remember by adhering to certain criteria of simplicity, concreteness, credibility, and unexpectedness that are emotionally charged, the story, and our message, stick.