“Have the courage to use simple language. People will listen.”

There is a little best-selling ‘management’ book that acts as a perfect demonstration of the power of simplicity.

The book is Who Moved My Cheese? remains a business best seller even many years after its original release. It has sold well over 15 million copies in a market where a few thousand is generally considered a success.

Who Moved my Cheese? was written by Spencer Johnson, who also co-wrote The One Minute Manager. It is a book about change and the way we handle it. 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 that is their lives.

Who Moved My Cheese? is a paradox in a publishing industry which produces hundreds of business books every year. Most of these books are thick, complex and offer countless checklists for success.

In contrast, Who Moved My Cheese? is thin (only 96 pages), offers no explicit solutions to anything and makes almost no reference to business at all.

To summarise the lessons of this book would be to do it an injustice: you need to read it for yourself. But the success of Johnson’s approach has a lot to teach us about how simplicity can make written communication, in particular, 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 without clouding them in detail. Its philosophy is that while the details may be important, they can always come later. But 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 – to our market, to our customers, to our co-workers, to our staff – is a fundamental part of business.

“Focus more of your communication effort on the receiver – not the transmitter.”

Wouldn’t life be simpler if you didn’t have to repeat yourself? If every time you attempted to persuade someone of something, they got the message first time? If your instructions were carried out without fault – first time, every time? My kids have taught me a powerful lesson in making these happen more often.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with a five year old you’ll know that they ask a lot of questions. Two of the more challenging questions posed at that age are “what makes the wind blow?” and “what is a government?”

What makes answering questions like this particularly difficult is that, at that age, children have a vocabulary of only around 1,500 to 2,500 words. This compares with a typical adult’s vocabulary of about 20,000 words.

However, these and other questions to children never go unanswered… and, in their way, they understand the answer.

Why do adults need all those extra words? On the surface this seems like a ridiculous question. Obviously we need extra words in order to be efficient with our communication.

Most of these extra words summarise concepts it would be just too hard to explain in full every time. Why would an accountant want to refer to the ‘amount remaining after expenses have been subtracted from revenues’ when he could simply say ‘profit’? Why would a chef want ‘to remove the browned bits of food from the bottom of a pan after sautéing’ when she could just ‘deglaze’?

What the experience with kids has reminded me is that the efficiency we gain from using our own specialist words entirely depends on the listener or reader understanding them.

When it comes to communicating, most of us have a tendency to err on the side of efficiency rather than effectiveness. In other words, we tend to choose words that make it easier for us to send our message than for our audience to receive it.

What you should do is the same whether you are communicating with your customers, your staff, your family or anyone else. You need to take responsibility for ensuring that your audience understands the language you are using.

I learnt my lesson because young kids are pretty good at letting you know that they don’t understand. But adults don’t like to appear ignorant. If they don’t understand, they often won’t let you know. Ultimately this results in very inefficient communication.

Think simple. If you’re not always properly understood, try listening to yourself for a time. Identify words and expressions you use that may not be clear to others. Think like a teacher – not an expert. Then if you want a real challenge, try and explain what you do to a four year old.

“The most effective communication is seldom the quickest. Don’t forget the ultimate aim: understanding.”

At one time or another, every leader has issued what he or she hoped would be a magical memo. You know: the memo which, once posted on the wall, would provide instant clarity for all who read it – or even walked past it.

As times have changed and technology has taken a bigger space in our lives, the enchanted email has replaced the magical memo in the manager’s kit. Press ‘Send’ and your staff will have received the message, understood it and altered their wayward ways.

For the more sophisticated message, we need a more sophisticated method of persuasion. This is where PowerPoint comes in. Gather everyone together, darken the room, throw up the bullet points and, voila, the message sinks in. At least we hope those glazed eyes indicate enlightenment and not drained brains.

If none of these works, we can always get someone else to provide the magic for us. Perhaps a course will make things clearer. Is Client Service a problem? Easy, send them to a one-day client service workshop, say ‘abracadabra’ three times and you’ll be winning satisfaction awards quicker than you can think.

Let’s face it: we’ve all done at least one of these at one time or another. Whether in haste, or out of frustration, or simply because we like kidding ourselves, we attempt to fast-track clarity and understanding through mystical means.

This is done with good intentions, of course. People need to know what’s expected of them, what authority they have, what the ‘big picture’ direction is and so on. When this clarity exists, life for you as a leader is made simpler because your staff is more self-sufficient and reliable.

But, as usual, making things simple takes effort.

When you next have an important message to get across, perhaps it might pay to look at what advertisers do. They use multiple modes (newspapers plus radio plus billboards, for instance). They use repetition: a ‘one off’ message will rarely cut through. And they focus mostly on the “What’s In It For Me?” of their audience. All of this takes work.

“Ban urgent emails. Urgency is what the phone is for.”

Email can damage your IQ.

Crazy, isn’t it? Letting technology govern your behaviour. As it turns out, we adults are bad at letting technology rule our lives.

A study in the United Kingdom found that the majority of the ‘connected’ population have become addicted to checking their email. People will compulsively check and respond to email anywhere and anytime. Even on weekends and holidays.

The researchers gave this phenomenon a name: info-mania.

And they discovered some interesting consequences of this techno distracted behaviour.

Their most dramatic finding was that being an ‘info-maniac’ – having a part of your brain constantly tuned in and waiting for the next message – effectively reduces your IQ by 10 points. This is a lot. It’s the same as going to work having missed a night’s sleep.

In essence, the researchers are saying that our most popular productivity tool – email – is damaging our productivity.

Email is a fantastic, simple tool. But it will only work for us if we treat it properly. And using it for urgent communication isn’t doing that. It’s time we grew up and gave proper thought to the way we use email and all our other means of communication.

“Keep asking questions. It’s the best way to reveal opportunities.”

Questions.

Whether we want to predict the future or identify opportunities for improvement, success depends much more on asking the right questions than knowing all the answers.

Questions open the door to opportunities. Opportunities to see the future. Opportunities to improve. Opportunities to simplify.

Questions come in many forms. The simplest ones (‘why?’, ‘how?’, etc.) don’t need to be sought out, we just need to take time out to ask them.

As a consultant, much of my work has involved mapping and understanding basic business processes. The results are always a revelation: participants in the process are amazed that a simple process can involve over 100 steps from end to end, most of which are not actually needed.

Opportunities to improve abound, but have remained invisible because the question ‘why?’ has not been asked.

Sometimes more sophisticated questions rely on the ‘asker’ having a vision, no matter how vague, of what the answer might be

 

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About Luis Soares Costa

From the very beginning, coaching has always been at the core of my passions.

For the past 38 years I have been an Executive and Team Coach working globally with CEOs and their C-Suite Executives, Business Owners and top talent in a significant number of the major global companies (including a significant number of Fortune 500), innovative companies operating in new ecosystems and dynamic family owned businesses.

During the past 28 years, I have also been an Executive and Team Coach and a “consultant to consultants” developing partners and top talent at major consultancies, Big4 Firms and Legal Firms

As an Executive and Team Coach, I partner with you and/or your teams in a “real play” thought-provoking and creative process which inspires you to “connect the dots” and maximize your personal and professional potential. The aim of the partnership is to bring about a sustained behavioral and performance transformation and profoundly shift the quality of your and your team’s working and personal life, whilst maximizing your potential and generating sustainable value.

You can contact me at coach@LuisSoaresCosta.com and visit my Website at www.LuisSoaresCosta.com