In this noisy, complicated world, we’re all seeking simplicity. A beach and a book. A turkey sandwich. An afternoon without a plan. Cool quiet and time to think.

That ideal applies to communication, too. I’d like all those unread emails in my inbox to disappear. Instagram is fun, but it’s just too frequent. How do I turn off the alerts in my brain?

All of that is probably why a simple little book--The Laws of Simplicity--has been so popular since it was published in 2006. In just 100 pages, the book, by MIT professor John Maeda, offers sanity, in the form of “10 laws of simplicity for business, technology, and design that teach us how to need less but get more.”

Does The Laws of Simplicity deliver? Mostly. Maeda sometimes gets a little too philosophical (and academic) to be helpful. But when he sticks to useful advice, there’s a lot you can learn. 

For example, here are 5 ways to apply Maeda’s principles to create compelling communication:

1. Make it smaller.“The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction,” writes Maeda. “When in doubt, just remove.” For example, I’m a big proponent of trying to keep messages to 50 words or fewer. And think about cutting communication into bite-size pieces to give the audience just enough content.

The result? “When a small, unassuming objective exceeds our expectations, we are not only surprised but pleased,” explains Maeda. “Our usual reaction is something like, 'That little thing did all that?' Simplicity is about the unexpected pleasure derived from what is likely to be insignificant and would otherwise go unnoticed.”

2. Organize info. Maeda’s position is that “organization makes a system of many appear fewer.” For example, if your clothes closet is out of the control, once you throw stuff out, you need to organize your apparel in a systematic fashion. 

“In a closet there can be groups of like items such as neckties, shirts, slacks, jackets, socks and shoes. A thousand-piece wardrobe can be organized into six categories, and be dealt with at the aggregate level and achieve greater manageability,” Maeda advises. “Working with fewer objects, concepts, and functions--and fewer corresponding buttons to press--makes life simpler when faced with the alternative of having too many choices.”

How does this apply to communication? Consider Maeda’s list of items: 

Red lion cola pepper sapphire

Blue bear frappe salt diamond

Green alligator martini msg topaz

Pink flamingo espresso garlic ruby           

White giraffe milk cumin emerald

Black penguin beer saffron amethyst

Gray dog water cinnamon turquoise

“As posted, their system of conceptual organization is not clear.” But organize these items into a neat table and give each column a heading--color, animal, drink, seasoning and gemstone--and it all becomes wonderfully simple.

3. Take it away. Here is Maeda’s perspective: “More appears like less by simply moving it far, far away.” When you’re creating communication, the question becomes: How can you remove information from this place (like an email) and put it somewhere else (like a website you can link to)? By taking content out and putting it somewhere else, you’ve lightened the load while still giving interested audience members the opportunity to learn more, if they’re interested.

4. Save time.“The average person spends at least an hour a day waiting in line,” writes Maeda. “Add to this the uncountable seconds, minutes, weeks spent waiting for something that might have no line at all.” That’s why “savings in time feel like simplicity.”

There are so many ways you can create communication that helps your audience save time. Make your messages shorter, for example (see #1). And organize information so it’s easy to navigate (yes, #3). In employee communication, we often create time savings by bundling messages--instead of sending seven emails, shorten each one and compile them into a digest. The key is to make your audience members’ lives easier by respecting their time.

5. Teach how to. Here is one of Maeda’s more subtle laws: “Knowledge makes everything simpler.” Let me explain: When you don’t understand something, and you feel confused, you experience that thing as complicated.

Maeda uses the example of operating a screwdriver. “Just mate the grooves atop the screw’s head to the appropriate tip--allotted or Phillips--of a screwdriver.” Easy, right? But “what happens next is not so simple, as you may have noted while observing a child or a woefully sheltered adult turning the screwdriver in the wrong direction. . . .While the screw is a simple design, you need to know which way to turn it.”

That’s why in communication, one of those most helpful things you can do is provide how-to information. “How to” is such a powerful phrase. So a key way to get audience members’ attention is to provide a “recipe:” helpful advice that makes at least one aspect of their lives easier.

Maeda’s advice: “The first step in conveying the basics is to assume the position of the first-time learner.” In his experience, the best designers (or communicators) instill “a sense of instant familiarity. 'Hey, I’ve seen this before!' is a targeted reaction that builds the confidence to give it a try.”

 

Orginally published on inc.com

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