Making it Stick: Keep it Simple

This is Part 2 of a seven-part series on making speeches and presentations memorable.  It is based on the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

Simplicity in a presentation is not so … well … simple.  And yet, finding the core of our message and communicating it in a straightforward manner is at the heart of sticky ideas.

Simplicity is the key to brilliance

When I was in law school, I came across a quote by the late Oliver Wendell Holmes, a former Justice on the United States Supreme Court.  He said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”  His words are etched in my mind.   They burst with wisdom on many levels, but for our purposes they contain a golden nugget of advice for lawyers and public speakers alike.

The ideas about which we speak to others are frequently complex.  We cannot stop at a superficial summary.  That would be simplistic, which is not the same as being simple.  We must get into the details.  However, that is where many of us go astray.  We lose perspective and become mired in those details.  We think that more is better and so we fill our PowerPoint presentations with slides and slides of information.  Inevitably, our key points become lost among the trivial ones.

We have to get into the details of the matter, but we have to work our way through them and come out on the other side.  We have to find the “simplicity on the far side of complexity”.  When I made closing arguments in court, I would rigorously ask myself beforehand: What are my key points?  What do I want the judges to remember?  I would then focus on two or three and exclude the rest which in any event were summarized in my written submissions.  I would then try and summarize those key points as simply as possible.

As speakers, we must be “masters of exclusion” as the Heaths say.  We must determine our key message and then ruthlessly prioritize.  If everything is important, nothing is important and our message will be lost.

Simple ideas, say the Heaths, are core and compact.  They cite proverbs and fables as classical examples.  Think of sayings such as “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” or “sour grapes” or “A stitch in time saves nine” or any one of hundreds more.  Each one crams a complex idea into a tiny space so that it is memorable.

One way to make your ideas simple is to anchor them to ideas with which your audience is already familiar.  Use metaphors and similes.  (Remember all those figures of speech that you studied in school and wondered what possible importance they could have?  Now you know!)

The Heaths give a great example by teaching readers what a pomelo is.  They start by giving a technical definition, stating that it is the largest citrus fruit and then describing its properties.  Based on that definition alone, I might be able to find one in a store.  But then they give a much shorter explanation, saying that a pomelo is like a supersized grapefruit with a thick and soft rind.  That gives me a much clearer idea because I already know what a grapefruit is.

There is more to be said about making your ideas simple but I will leave it at that.  Again, I encourage you to buy the book or at least check out the Made to Stick website.  Meanwhile, I will leave you with the first video in this series.

John Wooden is a retired basketball coach who won 10 NCAA Championships with UCLA.  He set many records that remain unbeaten to this day.  Affectionately known as “Coach” to many, Wooden also speaks publicly about the values that he tried to instil in his players and how, perhaps, they can help us to be more successful in our own lives.

The following speech was delivered at a TED conference and I have written in the past about TEDAs quoted from the TED website, “With profound simplicity, Coach John Wooden redefines success and urges us all to pursue the best in ourselves.  In this inspiring talk he shares the advice he gave his players at UCLA, quotes poetry and remembers his father’s wisdom.”

Watch the video and listen to the “profound simplicity” in the message that John Wooden conveys. It is wonderful example of what we should strive for in our own messages.

For the next post in the series, please click here.

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  1. John this is a great piece, I look forward to the rest. As a fellow speaker I know well how complex it can be to keep it simple and make it easily memorable. Thank you for sharing.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International