KISS: keep it simple but not stupid

Originally posted September 2011

KISS – keep it simple, stupid, is one of those expressions that gets thrown around as the golden rule for writing. Perhaps it should be rephrased: Keep it simple, but don’t be stupid. Ok, it wouldn’t quite be KISS anymore, but I think you get my point.

Rather than launch into a lengthy explanation, let’s try a simple experiment (you can call it a quiz or game if you are more comfortable with these terminologies).

Road signs are one of the simplest forms of communication we have. They are designed specifically to convey specific, and potentially life-saving, messages regardless of the driver’s gender, race, age, education, socio-economic status, language or level of literacy.

How many of these signs can you decode – they are all legitimate and in use in different parts of the world.


And the answers: 1 Reserved parking space (Poland), 2 Deaf person crossing or in vicinity (Sweden), 3 Roadwork ahead (Ireland), 4 Toilet ahead (Sweden), 5 Vehicles carrying explosives/flammable goods prohibited (Greece), 6 Just as it says (US), 7 Quayside or ferry berth (Finland), 8 Speed camera sign (used in at least 8 countries), 9 Other danger (Germany), 10 Sound your horn (Japan).

Too often simple is associated with short and sweet, stripping the material to its bare bones to leave behind a half-formed at best, superficial at worst, message. Alternatively ideas are broken down to the most basic components and expressed in words of two syllables or less and end up facile or insulting.

Next time you are preparing a text, presentation or lecture, consider these points to make sure you are simple but not stupid.

Find the comfort zone

Sometimes sticking to the accepted way of expressing things is the simplest. The word industrialise is an example. In a company I worked for this meant the process of taking an idea from the white board through development and production to marketing, transportation and onto the shelf. I still hate the word, but admit for that particular audience using a ”plain English” explanation would have introduced confusion.

The Swedish toilet sign is another example. The symbol makes perfect sense but if you are used to the generic toilet icon or the little man and woman in her triangle dress, a new way of expressing the same thing can leave the audience perplexed.

Similarly, the New York parking sign, while perfectly clear, is so out of place in its phrasing it appears to be a prank, not a serious warning.

If necessary, spell it out

Relying on people to join the dots is dangerous as is assuming your audience knows everything on the subject (this is obviously a balancing act with my previous point).

Take the P in the first example; everyone knows what it means but adding the envelope clouds the issue. You could be excused for thinking this was car parking for a post office (I did). I won’t even go into the case of the burning car, it speaks for itself.

A brief explanation doesn’t complicate your communication it helps to clarify, as does a well thought-out summary to bring your ideas to a logical conclusion.

Don’t be vague

Being simple does not mean leaving out details. You still need to give the audience enough information to understand your point. The Irish roadwork sign sums this up: is he digging or playing hockey? Likewise, the second last example is so general one has to wonder if there is a point. Don’t bring it up if you can’t back it up.

Provide context

Signs 2 and 10, where to start? I can’t for the life of me work out how a bowling ball on an orange background alerts drivers to deaf people, and no amount of research has helped. So let’s move on.

Being an aggressive driver known for leaning on the horn through rush hour traffic it never occurred to me that someone would WANT me to sound my horn. I did however grow up on a farm, so the idea of an electrified fence came straight to mind.

No matter how straightforward you think you are, if the audience does not have the right context, or is bound up in a preconceived idea, there are bound to be misunderstandings.

If in doubt, own up

If you are keeping tabs you know I have two signs left to touch upon. But I won’t. One of the simplest ways of keeping your communication simple is to accept you can’t know everything. Don’t bluff your way through. Your audience will either spot your as a phoney and ignore what you have to say or become as baffled as you are.

Posted in Better content, Clear communication

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