For and Against Simplicity

“Keep it simple.” “Brevity is the soul of wit.” “Write short, clear sentences.” “Keep your paragraphs short.”

Standard writing advice.

Elegant, isn’t it? Notice how much meaning is packed into that string of short sentences.

What you may not notice, though, is how much danger is packed into those sentences. The truth is that simplicity and brevity aren’t appropriate for every situation.

To give just one example: Imagine that you have to disappoint a customer, a child, or a friend. You need to stretch out the explanation to reassure your listener that you really did consider the request and really wanted to fulfill it – but circumstances (or policies, or economics, or something else) got in the way.

Life isn’t always simple. I once had a professor who liked to remind us that complex ideas require sophisticated vocabulary and elaborate sentences. He was right on target.

While sorting through some old magazines, I came across a 2003 news report about the Columbia shuttle disaster. Part of the problem, according to NASA, was the agency’s reliance on…PowerPoint.

Hmmm. Think about it for a moment.

The low resolution and uniform size of PowerPoint slides impose limits on the flow of ¬†information as you’re trying to make a point. More seriously, PowerPoint’s love affair with bullets reduces sophisticated cause-and-effect reasoning to a series of isolated facts. Bang, bang, bang, one after another. If you want a complex argument to unfold for your audience, you’re going to have to fight against PowerPoint’s reductive format.

PowerPoint is a wonderful tool, but not for everything.

Simplicity is a wonderful principle, but not all the time. So here’s some holiday advice. If you’ve decided that now is the time to break off a romance that isn’t working for you any longer, you’d better not rely on PowerPoint or a couple of straightforward declarative sentences. This may be the time to get out that thesaurus and think about some complex sentence patterns. You’re going to be there for a while.


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