Steve Jobs once said, "Simple can be harder than complex." It's true, which is why it's hard to express your ideas simply. Anyone can write long, confusing sentences. Anyone can speak in esoteric jargon. But simplicity is worth pursuing because it "can move mountains."  according to Jobs.

In your next presentation, move mountains by using words most listeners will understand. Steve Jobs often used third-grade language to hide the complexity of Apple's products. Yes, third-grade words.

For example, in 1997 Apple released the iconic Think Different ad campaign. You remember the one. It began: "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes." It ended with the line, "Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

I recently finished work on a new book about persuasion. As part of the research, I pasted the ad's text into app called Hemingway that educators use to measure readability. It's based on the Flesch-Kincaid model to measure the grade level of textbooks. The ad returned a grade level of two, which means the words would be appropriate for a book in the second grade. 

Steve Jobs Used Simple Words to Launch the iPhone

In 2007, Steve Jobs launched the first iPhone. Jobs began by saying, "This is a day I've been looking forward to for two-and-a-half years. Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything..."

I pulled the text from the first seven minutes of iPhone launch and placed it into the program. I only stripped out the filler words like "um" to get a cleaner text. 

The first 1,000 words of the iPhone introduction returned a grade level of three. Steve Jobs moved mountains that day and he did it using third-grade words.

Short Words are Best

Why do short words engage our attention better than long ones?  Winston Churchill--one of the greatest orators of the 20th century--provided the answer. "Short words are best" because they are "the most ancient," he said. Ancient words are the most familiar to your audience. Here's the key. It takes courage to use simple words. 

An American Express survey found that a lot of professionals use jargon in the workplace to sound smarter. But confident, smart business leaders don't feel the same way. According to Richard Branson, "Some people love speaking in jargon, using fancy words and turning everything into acronyms. It's far better to use a simple term and commonplace words that everyone will understand." 

In a recent email to Tesla employees, Elon Musk told everyone to cut the jargon and "nonsense words" to describe the company's software and processes. Musk wrote, "We don't want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla."

In his ground-breaking book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote that people who are considered credible and intelligent replace complex language with simple words. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but smart people have the courage to speak simply.  

For my new book, I spoke to the co-founder of a health plan company called Collective Health. He pointed me to studies that show consumers do not understand the most basic insurance terms. In one large study of hundreds of employees, only 14 percent could explain basic insurance terms such as "deductible." The study concluded that simple language would help people make better decisions for their personal health. 

As a result of all its research, Collective Health provides health insurance material written in third-grade language. It's not easy to do. It takes a lot of editing. But once again, it's worth it in the end to move mountains. 

Although I think it's a great exercise to reduce the complexity of your language, don't get too hung up on expressing all your ideas and presentations in third-grade language. According to the readability app, as long as you strive to keep your language under the 10th grade, it's probably fine. I strive to keep my writing between grades five to seven. 

Richard Branson once said, "Any fool can make things complicated." Don't be the fool. Be the smart one.

Published on: Apr 24, 2018