Lessons in Simplicity from Apple's Former Ad Agency Creative Director

I recently read an article in a British Airways inflight magazine about the lessons in simplicity that we can learn from Apple. It was written by Ken Segall and is entitled “Keep it simple”. Segall served as Apple’s ad agency creative director for more than 12 years.

The article contains a number of insights about the power of simplicity, something about which I have written extensively in this blog; for example, here and here and here and here. Although Segall focuses on product design, marketing and running a company, the principles apply with equal force to presentations.

Key Takeaways

Below are my key takeaways from the article. Segall’s words are in bold and quotes. My thoughts follow each.

“[T]he one thing that struck me throughout my association with Steve was his unwavering love of simplicity. Many stories have been written about how and why Apple succeeded … We can all agree that it was a combination of many factors, including vision, innovation, design and marketing. My observation was that Steve’s love of simplicity was the foundation for all of these.”

If you are going to become good at simplicity, you have to appreciate it. You have to love it. You have to commit to it.

“Yes, you can see [simplicity] in Apple’s hardware and software, but you can also see it in its advertising, packaging, stores, even in the way the company organises internally.”

Having a mindset that is geared toward simplicity involves thinking about every aspect of your presentation. It is much more than just designing slides. The thing is, when you embrace simplicity, it will yield benefits as you plan, design and deliver your presentation.

“Simplicity was the lens through which Steve Jobs observed everything. If an idea or design didn’t register quickly or clearly enough, he would send the team back to the drawing board to get it right.”

Rigorously review your presentation to ensure that is as simple as possible. If it is confusing to you, it will be confusing to your audience. And even if it is clear to you, it still might be confusing to your audience. So challenge yourself; get feedback from others to see if they understand your message. Never forget that we all suffer from the curse of knowledge.

“In the pursuit of simplicity, compromise was never tolerated. … [A]lthough every businessperson acknowledges the power of simplicity, few make it a core focus of their company. Way too many are quick to compromise, opening the door for complexity to creep in. Complexity is what frustrates employees and confuses customers.”

As the great jazz musician, Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple—that’s creativity.” Most presentations that I see are complicated and could be made much simpler. If you choose the path of simplicity, you will stand out and you will be appreciated.

“Now, I wouldn’t be a very good proponent of simplicity if I couldn’t condense my advice into a single word. So here it is: Minimise. Business leaders who succeed through simplicity are very good at taking many things and turning them into fewer things. … Indeed, Steve Jobs explained that Apple’s success was born of its ability to ‘remove the extraneous’.”

As French author and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away.” The old advice that “less is more” is true. Reduce the number of points that you will cover as much as possible. Cut down the number of slides as much as possible. Reduce the amount of information on each slide as much as possible.

“You can minimise the messages you send out in marketing. You can minimise the choices you offer in products and serviceschoices that often freeze customers into inaction instead of inspiring them to buy.”

People can only remember so much in a presentation. If you hit them with too much information, the result will be counterproductive.

“I talked to more than 40 business leaders around the world, in a variety of industries, about how their companies leverage the power of simplicity. Each has a unique point of view, but there were also a number of common threads. One of those was the ability to see their company through customers’ eyes. In other words, the customer experience is all-important.”

Every speech, every presentation is about the audience. You have to think about your audience as you create your presentation. Why should they care about your message? Will they be able to understand your message? Are you going to make their time with you worthwhile?

“Simplicity is one of the most important factors in [the customer] experience. … I doubt that there is a single human being alive who doesn’t prefer a simpler experience. It’s in our DNA. So we gravitate toward the company that delivers it, and we develop an emotional attachment to those who deliver it repeatedly. In other words, simplicity plants the seeds of loyalty – which is at the core of every business’s growth.”

Often, we believe that the audience will think we are stupid if we do not provide exhaustive details about every possible aspect of our topic. But the opposite is true. People appreciate simple, clear presentations. If the topic is complex, they are most likely going to have to do additional work after your presentation anyway. You can always provide a detailed handout or direct them to other material. In the presentation, just focus on the essentials.

“How convenient it would be if there was a sure-fire formula for bringing simplicity into your business. But no such luck. Every business is different, and most leaders agree: being simple is not simple.”

Simplicity is hard work. That’s why it is so valuable.

“[Y]our company needs to commit to simplification, and the workforce needs to feel that commitment.”

Commit to simplicity in your presentations. Of course, as Albert Einstein said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

“When a company has a culture of simplicity, new employees learn by example ‘the way we work here’, and they in turn train those who follow. It’s a virtuous circle of simplicity.”

By incorporating simplicity into your presentations, not only do you have the opportunity to get your message across, you can also inspire those in the audience to incorporate simplicity into their presentations.

“Simplicity streamlines an operation, making a company faster. It focuses a company on doing the highest quality work. And, by cutting out unnecessary processes and committees, it reduces costs.”

Simplicity will help you prepare and deliver a quality presentation. Your audience will understand your message faster and remember it longer. That will result in saved time and time is money.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that simplicity is the most powerful force in business – and also the most efficient.”

Ken Segall is the author of Think Simple: How Smart Leaders Defeat Complexity. I have not read the book and so cannot comment on it. If you are interested, you can learn more here.

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  1. Excellent and valuable: as always. THANKS

    Ted Sorensen’s approach to speech writing mirrors many of the same approaches. Simplicity combined with grand ideas is the winning combination.

    My personal thinking on speechwriting is deeply influenced by “Chapter 12: Speechwriting” of Ted Sorensen’s 2008 book “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History”. Ted Sorensen developed a style of speech writing that can be boiled down to six basic rules. The first 4 points are simplification tools. So is the 5th point–to a lesser extent.

    1. Less is almost always better than more.
    2. Choose each word as a precision tool.
    3. Organize the text to simplify, clarify, emphasize.
    4. Use variety and literary devices to reinforce memorability, not confuse or distract.
    5. Employ elevated but not grandiose language.
    6. Substantive ideas are the most important part of any speech.

    Comment from Ted Sorenson: Those politicians who that tried in the last forty years to emulate John F. Kennedy’s success on the speaker’s platform forget that his best speeches moved people not because of the grandeur of his phrases, which can largely be imitated by any White House wordsmith, but because of the grandeur of his ideas.

  2. I had the pleasure of working with Ken on Apple. It is great to see and hear his advice.

    I could not agree more with his words “There’s no doubt in my mind that simplicity is the most powerful force in business.”

    John Wagner

      1. One correction on my comment. I had the pleasure of working with Ken “on” Apple while we were at BBDO.

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