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.

Being simple in our presentations 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.

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, then 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 how fantastic TED isAs 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.

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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8 Responses to Making it Stick: Keep it Simple

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  7. Melissa Galt says:

    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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