Keep it Simple, Stupid: Occam’s Razor and Business Communications

Have we all had this moment? You wake up at some god-awful moment in the middle of the night, like 3:48 a.m., and your finger hurts, and you decide in an instant that it’s bone cancer. You will not see your children grow up, you can’t remember if you paid the most recent premium for your life insurance, and you wonder how your oldest is ever going to learn his multiplication tables without you. When you wake up, you immediately turn to WebMD explain what’s going on in your body.

We all do it – we jump to conclusions; we are human. The size of our mammalian brain means that we need to make sense of the world, to explain phenomena that we experience and to come to a conclusion until we are proven wrong.

I learned about a really neat concept this week, one that has so much relevance for the way we think, the way we act, and the way we work. It’s not new – in fact, it’s about 700 years old. But it’s new to me, and it might be new to you, too.

It’s called Occam’s razor. According to Wikipedia, it is the “meta-theoretical principle that ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’ (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem) and the conclusion thereof, that the simplest solution is usually the correct one.” The principle is attributed to 14th-century English logician, theologian and Franciscan friar, William of Ockham.

“The simplest solution is usually the correct one.” So what does that mean? It means that your sore finger is more likely due to the fact that your wedding ring is a little tight – not bone cancer. If you are confronted with several possible explanations, Occam’s razor would encourage you to prefer the simplest one over the more complicated ones, because it is more practical – and more likely to be right.

What does this mean for PR? To me, it boils down to the following five handy reminders:

  1. Keep it simple, stupid. I was writing a creative brief for a client project this week, and I had to remind myself over and over to boil it down, get down to the essence, turn the sap into syrup.  One message is better than three.
  2. The best strategies are those that swim downstream. If a big concept is giving you fits, it’s probably not the right direction – either that or you don’t have enough information to proceed with confidence.
  3. Flatter team structures are better. When a work team has more than three layers, it’s generally a precursor to disaster.
  4. If it’s not important, razor it out. Have the courage to land on your main points and stay there.
  5. Don’t overthink things. We have access to so much information now – through Google and WebMD and Wikipedia and thousands of twitter followers and analysts – that it’s tempting to indulge in multiple hypotheses. Resist the urge. The simple solution is the elegant solution.

Why don’t we go with simple?  Often it is because we are afraid. Afraid of being out of control. Afraid of looking unprepared. Afraid that we have not yet anticipated unarticulated needs. Afraid that we won’t fill the time. But these fears cause us to lose clarity.

What can you razor out of your communications, your PR strategy, your to do list?

To reach Abby:

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