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The Power of Simplicity

August 11, 2014
The Power of Simplicity for Business Success and Customer Clarity


Originally published on CEO BlogNation


Simplicity is a powerful agent for business success. It is the reduction of otherwise complex ideas or product ingredients into something so easily understandable that consumers can appreciate the contrast between one brand versus another, and make judgments about those differences. Indeed, of the many analogies that come to mind about the beauty of simplicity, including Einstein’s equation for mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2), I have one that echoes with me still.

In the film Philadelphia, where Denzel Washington’s character acts as the plaintiff’s attorney for Andrew Beckett, an AIDS-stricken lawyer played by Tom Hanks, who is wrongfully fired because of his disease, there is a scene, where, in examining one of Mr. Beckett’s former clients, Washington-as-Joe-Miller, a solo practitioner with a caseload of disreputable accident “victims,” cuts through all the legalese and evasiveness of the witness, and says: “All right. All right, Mr. Laird, explain this to me like I’m a four-year-old, okay?”

That scene – the “explain this to me like I’m a four-year-old” moment – is one of the most compelling examples of cinema, as well as a lesson in effective communications. It is a rule every business should follow because, minus the design of Philadelphia’s magisterial courtroom (shot in Courtroom 243 of City Hall), with its commanding bench, expansive desks for opposing counsel, and spacious witness and jury boxes – all of it framed by antique brass lighting fixtures for the oil paintings of 18th century luminaries, aligned against the westernmost wall of the courtroom – in that 10-second exchange between Messrs. Laird and Miller – is everything we need to know about almost everything.

Put aside the pomp and circumstance, the ceremonial call of the bailiff and the solemnity of the flags of the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the United States of America, and remember those eight simple words: Explain this to me like I’m a four-year-old. That statement influences how you create products, run a business and interact (respectfully) with consumers.

So, yes, I value the strength of simplicity. As the Founder of Kiss My Itch Goodbye, I ensure that that rule – the read-it-and-never-forget-it principle of simplicity – defines the products I develop that alleviate or eliminate a common frustration: The itching sensation induced by pests, pets, allergies and unexpected events.

My broader point, which applies to all executives and entrepreneurs, is this: Inspiration has many origins, most of them divorced (in a linear way) from the products and services that emerge when the muse strikes. No business school textbook can replicate this experience; and no amount of contrived brainstorming can summon a life-changing epiphany from a “breakout session” with a group of marketers and coworkers.

Finding Your Inner Four-Year-Old, Or: Communicating Effectively

This emphasis on simplicity also elicits a good question: Is speaking to a consumer like he or she is a four-year-old, with regard to things that are inherently complex, a sign of condescension or disrespect?

My answer is an unequivocal no, since some issues are, by their very nature, opaque or mysterious. But, if a four-year-old can follow my point, if a child can appreciate – and even pronounce the ingredients in my line of products – then I have done my job well.

In fact, only if I can decipher the purpose and use of my own products – if, as a non-chemist and as a consumer, I can easily figure out the why and how of my own research and development – only then will I assign my brand name to this work. Or: I must tell it to myself like I’m a four-year-old, and I must also understand it like I’m a four-year-old.

These rules are universal in their appeal, and undeniable in their success among consumers. They speak to the value of communications and the influence of plain English.

In simplicity, we find many things – chief among them, trust, integrity and prosperity.