In both life and in business, we’re asked to simplify. As marketers, this is doubly true. A simpler message is easier to understand, easier to communicate, and easier to retain—all desirable things from a marketing perspective. But our world of tweets, six-second YouTube ads, and viral soundbites encourages us to simplify everything, including truly complicated problems. And like most things, too much simplification is a bad—and potentially dangerous—thing.
Consider the following:
Below is one of the world’s most famous and most elegant equations. Perhaps you’re aware of it.
This equation is a work of art, and is a paragon of simplicity. It explains, in relatively simple terms, that energy and matter are essentially equivalent, and led to our modern understanding of the very fabric of spacetime. If something this meaningful can be communicated in such simple terms, surely other less complex ideas (such as selling products) can be described simply.
What people often overlook is the work that it took Einstein to get there. Now consider the photo below.
Those are the underlying equations that Einstein worked through on his blackboards in order to derive E=mc2. While the end result is incredibly simple, it took two full blackboards of mathematical equations to get there. With just one of these details missing—one variable or equation—Einstein wouldn’t have been able to reach his profound conclusion.
I know what you’re thinking: so, how does this relate to our everyday lives?
The world is complex. Human beings are complex. Politics, economies, societies—all complex things. Yet, as we strive to simplify the world around us, we tend to miss or even ignore important details. It’s in our understanding of these details that we find the risk, and where good instincts can become bad decisions.
Let's talk about consequences. When you make a decision, there are consequences. By making a decision, you're betting that the positive consequences you face will be greater than the negative ones. As a decision-maker, your job is to weigh the possible outcomes and judge them on their consequences. If you proceed without this analysis, you put your project or initiative or even your company at risk. If you're oversimplifying a decision, you're ignoring the reality of the consequences you face, or the efforts required to achieve your desired outcome.
However, there is hope. There is an easy way to tell if you’re oversimplifying something. Say it out loud, and listen for the word just. Just is what we say when we’re oversimplifying or ignoring the nuance of an issue: Consider the following everyday examples:
- Economics is just the law of supply and demand.
- To lose weight you just have to eat less and exercise more.
- To quit smoking, just stop buying cigarettes.
- It's easy to save money, just put some from each paycheck away into a separate account and don't touch it.
All of the statements above are technically correct. It is possible to kick a smoking habit if you never buy yourself cigarettes again. But the oversimplified statement ignores the difficulty of nicotine withdrawal or the mental and physical habits smokers develop. It ignores the social aspects of smoking and the relief nicotine provides as a coping mechanism for anxiety. If quitting smoking was so simple, more people would be successful, and yet some research indicates it may take as many as 30 attempts to kick the habit. It may not be so simple after all.
Or, take a more practical example: selling your product to a new market. Imagine you sell power tools to professional contractors, but want to expand your offering to the DIY market. You may think it’s just as easy as increasing your advertising budget and expanding your audience. However, professional contractors need high-quality tools that will last for years, and are willing to pay a premium for well-built tools with good warranties. The DIY audience probably won’t be willing to pay $1,000 for a premium tool when there are several $100 options that meet their needs. If you enter into this new market without first considering what they value in their tools, you’re going to waste time and money advertising to a customer that will never buy.
This example is fairly obvious, but it illustrates a good point: if you make too many assumptions and don’t consider the nuance and consequences of your decisions, you risk wasting your resources. Simplicity is a good thing, yes, but oversimplifying can lead to poor decision-making.
Or, put simply: just
remember to think things through before you act.