The power of simplicity

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Behind me in my office sit two large bookcases, one of which is almost entirely filled with business books.

This is a good thing, as business books are what I write and so I should be staying on top of what is happening in the genre.

The sad thing is that of the hundred or more books on that shelf, I could probably list half a dozen that are genuinely memorable. Of the rest, most are too long. The authors made their point in the first couple of chapters then, presumably feeling they would find it hard to sell a 50-page book, padded out the text to give the final product sufficient heft.

One of that small number of stand-outs is a little book with the quirky title Who Moved My Cheese?. Seventeen years after it was published, this book is still one of Amazon’s top 1000 selling books. It has sold tens of millions of copies in the business book category – a category where a few thousand sales is generally considered a success.

Who Moved my Cheese? was written by Spencer Johnson, who co-wrote another management perennial, The One Minute Manager.

Cheese is a book about change and the way we handle change. Its lessons are taught through the telling of a simple parable. We follow the fortunes of four characters (named Sniff and Scurry, Hem and Haw) as they move through the maze in which they live their lives.

In contrast to most of the books on my shelf, Who Moved My Cheese? is very thin (only 96 pages), offers no explicit solutions to anything and makes almost no reference to business at all. It does not contain a single ‘checklist for success’.

To summarise the lessons of this book would be to do it an injustice: you need to read it for yourself. (Allow less than an hour.) But the success of Johnson’s approach has a lot to teach us about how simplicity can make a written message more accessible. Consider these four characteristics:

·  Who Moved My Cheese? uses simple language. Through its use of parable, the book speaks to a wide audience. Although marketed primarily as a management book, it has something to teach staff at all levels as well as parents, teenagers – even politicians.

·  The book focuses on the basics. It strips the topic of ‘change’ down to its bare essentials but doesn’t cloud them in detail. Its philosophy is that while the details may be important, they can always come later … and they will be worth nothing if the fundamentals are not understood first.

·  It doesn’t do our thinking for us. This book encourages us to interpret its lessons for ourselves. In this way, our conclusions are much more powerful and much more likely to stay with us.

·  Perhaps most powerful of all, the book’s concepts can be easily shared. Readers of Who Moved My Cheese? become members of an informal ‘club’. They share a new ‘language’ and can readily compare each other’s individual approaches to change using the simple cheese and maze analogy.

‘Getting the message across’ is a fundamental part of writing any business communication, whether email, website, blog, book or anything else. Johnson’s success proves yet again that keeping things simple is an effective way to have more of your audience understand what you are trying to say. We should never underestimate the power of simplicity.

May your words pour onto the page,