Paul Westerberg is reuniting the Replacements, or at least he’s playing again with the bass player which, for wistful fans of a certain age like myself, is enough.
Why is that? Westerberg writes songs that stick with you. Catchy, yes. Clever, sure. But as he explains in a recent New York Times essay, the trick is to keep it simple.
“My own creed is simple or impossible,” he explained.
I’ve become a Simple person (not be confused I trust with simpleton). The more I think about how to communicate, the more I want to strip things away.
Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity is a new book that makes the case. The authors, Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, Siegel and Etzkorn define simplicity as the rare sum of convenience, clarity, usability, timeliness and beauty.
Unfortunately, they see a world where simplicity is in short supply. Needless complexity, especially in language, is holding back our economy and our democracy.
Take the disclosure statements from banks, or terms of service from web services, or instructions from tax agencies. They are poorly worded and jargon-filled.
It’s as if the writers intended to confuse you. “Complexity is a failing,” Siegel and Etzkorn write, “unless it was intentional — in which case you’d really better watch your step.”
The long word counts of disclosures, service terms or tax instructions, supposedly needed in the interest of transparency and disclosure, serves neither. People just tune it all out.
“When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention,” Siegel and Etzkorn write. As an example, they point to the growing length of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which have reached an all-time high in words but also are notable for failing to provide clear guidelines for lower courts, according to judicial experts.
Another new book, Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass R. Sunstein, uses the author’s own experience guiding the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to champion the benefits of going simple, especially in government.
Sunstein is a liberal and progressive but of a certain kind. He believes that government must play a significant role in society to protect safety, educate children and provide the infrastructure for modern life. But he believes that it must do so in ways that nudge people as often as it mandates. Government must “ease people’s choices” to do things like apply for a license, get food assistance or sign up for health insurance.
He believes language is key to achieving these goals, but also key is what he calls “choice architecture,” defined as the “social environment against which we make our decisions.” For example, a book store’s choice architecture includes which books are on display when you enter the store. For a website, it would include the labels given to the main pages in a site navigation.
The Simple Movement — and let us hope that indeed it’s a movement — obviously applies to the work of nonprofit and cause communicators as it does to government bureaucrats and corporate lawyers. You may spend most of your waking hours thinking about nuclear arms control, but your audience most definitely does not. Same goes for climate change, or labor rights, or education reform.
So keep it simple, or it’ll be impossible to hum your tune.