Posted Dec. 5, 2018
In any communication – written, spoken, visual, or otherwise – always aim to simplify rather than to inject complexity.
Simplicity in written communication facilitates clarity and understanding by reducing the cognitive load (the amount of brainwork) readers have to undertake. In addition, it minimizes the risk of confusion and puts the focus on your meaning rather than your phrasing.
But this principle – simplicity trumps complexity in communication – isn't just an idea or best practices. It has neurological roots in how our brains process language.
University of Arizona researcher Masha Fedzechkina studied why so many of the world's languages – of which there are over 7,000 – share some fundamental characteristics. It turns out that our brains favor simplicity in our language due to "dependency length." The idea is that the grammar and syntax of most languages are structured to shorten "the distance between words that depend on each other to explain their meaning." The human brain favors short dependencies.
But if this is true, why has the world become so complex?
Perhaps we can blame the proliferation of information, technology, and demands on our attention. Regardless of the specific cause, Alan Siegel, author of Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), "America and the world are suffering from a crisis of complexity."
The WSJ suggests a missing ingredient here is empathy. The individual and organizations tasked with communicating with the public become overly focused on priorities other than reader comprehension. In some cases, their communications become ego-driven, where they care more about how the communication makes them look, sound, or appear than whether it successfully informs, educates, or moves the audience. In short, they lose sight of the readers’ needs. The paper argues, "Empathy is the only way to truly shorten the distance between an organization providing services and the individual receiving them."
If you struggle with understanding your readers, their needs, and how they receive your communications, the solution is relatively straightforward: ask for feedback.
Feedback works! A five-year study of "upward feedback" (feedback provided to managers from their direct reports) found that "managers who met with direct reports to discuss their upward feedback improved more than other managers." It's easy to see this situation – managerial feedback – as analogous to communicators receiving feedback from their audience.
If all else fails, try the "zero-based approach" used at Google, a company that knows a thing or two about improving consumer experience. At Google, the zero-based approach is key to maintaining design simplicity over time. It means that any new visual element must be rigorously justified, and the degree of any change is scored. They favor changes that score fewer points (the closer to zero the better) because "More points = less simplicity."
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.