Albert Einstein was obviously very smart.

And no one doubts Bill Gates's intelligence.

And you may not have heard of Randall Munroe, but he's smart, too--a former NASA roboticist who spends a lot of his time explaining complicated processes.

So when it's time for them to communicate, you might think that super-smart people like these guys would dazzle you with their complex explanations and graduate-level language.

Nope. In fact, all three of these brainiacs share the same philosophy of effective communication: Be as simple as possible.

Let's start with Einstein and his famous quote: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

What I love about this is the responsibility is on you, the communicator: You have to work hard to truly understand the topic, so you can convey it simply.

Which brings us to Randall Munroe, author of Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. Munroe's book contains "pictures and simple words" . . . in which "each page explains how something important or interesting works, using only the ten hundred words in our language that people use the most."

Ten hundred? Well, that's part of Munroe's quest for extreme simplification. (By the way, neither "extreme" or "simplification" makes his list of 1,000 commonly used words.)

Here's what The New York Times wrote about Thing Explainer: "The oversized, illustrated book consists of annotated blueprints with deceptively spare language, explaining the mechanics behind concepts like data centers, smartphones, tectonic plates, nuclear reactors and the electromagnetic spectrum. In his explanations, Mr. Munroe avoided technical jargon and limited himself to the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. This barred him from using words like helium and uranium, a challenge when describing how a rocket ship or reactor works."

Instead, Munroe explains things this way:

  • Box that cleans food holders. This box is a machine that cleans plates and cups by throwing water at them. The water is full of cleaning stuff, which helps the water stick to the food and pull it off. (You call this a "dishwasher")
  • Power boxes (batteries)
  • Writing sticks (pens)
  • Lifting room . . . a box that carries people up and down in a building. (elevator)

Now you may think that Munroe goes too far in his effort to simplify. But his approach offers a useful model for smart people everywhere who find themselves using any of the following:

  • Technical jargon
  • Acronyms
  • Complicated charts and graphs
  • Corporate speak
  • Words of many syllables

The problem with communicating in a complicated way is it causes friction. In communication, friction occurs when an audience member is intrigued by a topic, but then encounters resistance on his/her quest to engage with content.

For example, friction occurs when:

  • Content is too long. A video is 10 minutes, and the audience member only has three. There are too many pages or too many words. The slide show is 55 pages.
  • Communication is too hard to understand. Content is thick and dense. Words are difficult; terms are unfamiliar.

These and other sources of friction all add up to the same result: When communication requires too much of a commitment, audience members abandon ship. That's why even a little step--like using simpler words--is so important for reducing friction and making it easier for people.

Munroe's approach is especially valuable if you need audience members to understand even the most difficult topic . . . like how a rocket ship works or why your boss should support your proposal for a new process. Writes Munroe: "When I was in school . . . I learned how to use lots of big words for things like the shape of the world. Sometimes I would use those big words because they were different from small words in an important way. But a lot of time, I was really just worried that if I used the small words, someone might think I didn't know the big ones."

But Munroe understands the power of simplicity: "I liked writing this book because it made me let go of my fear of sounding stupid," he writes. "After all--when you're saying things like 'space boats' and 'water pushers,' everything sounds stupid. Using simple words let me stop worrying so much. I could just have fun making up new names for things and trying to explain cool ideas in new ways."

And Bill Gates? He's a fan: "Thing Explainer is filled with cool basic knowledge about how the world works. If one of Munroe's drawings inspires you to go learn more about a subject--including a few extra terms--then he will have done his job. He has written a wonderful guide for curious minds."

How simple (and smart) is that?

Published on: Jul 15, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.