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From JFK to Jobs: The Case for Simplicity in Presentations

By Maggie Summers on October 23, 2012

John F. Kennedy famously said,

“The only reason to give a speech is to change the world.”

We like to ascribe that aphorism to presentations, too. Why give a presentation if it’s not meant to change something, however small or large? Why spend time delivering a presentation that’s not meant to incite action?

In order to motivate change with our presentations, we must deliver our message as clear as possible to the audience. And that means boiling down the complicated until it turns simple. Simplicity is key in presentations, and with the help of a few quotes from celebrated gentlemen, here’s why.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough.” – Albert Einstein

Consider the most basic reason for attending any presentation: to learn something new from someone who’s an expert in the matter. As a presenter, you should be completely knowledgeable about the topic you are presenting. Of course there’s leeway in that statement–– no one knows absolutely everything there is to know about a topic–– but you should be expert enough that you can explain your topic in a simple way.

If you feel like you can’t boil that complicated, convoluted slide down into something easy to swallow for the novice, it’s time to hit the books again. For as Mr. Einstein says, you don’t know it well enough. Keep in mind that your audience doesn’t know what you know; they aren’t as familiar with the topic as you are, so do what you can to cut out the complicated in favor of the simple.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” – Steve Jobs

As Mr. Jobs wisely points out, paring down the complicated into the simple isn’t easy. It’s far easier to just slap those mind-numbing bullet points, cumbersome charts and obscure graphs onto your slides and call it a day. Simplicity necessitates thoughtful inclusion and exclusion of content. It demands a thorough understanding of the topic at hand, so that a paragraph of information can be reduced to a sentence while retaining the exact same meaning.

Mr. Jobs is also wise to point out that you can move mountains with a simple message. How many compelling campaign slogans are paragraphs long? How many really great advertisements are a couple sentences? How many poignant mission statements could fill slides upon slides with content? None. Simplicity is powerful. Take a look at Jobs’ inventions for proof. The MacBook, iPhone, iPod and iPad are all strikingly beautiful in their simplicity. Work hard to simplify your presentation’s message to inspire a lasting impression on your audience.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

We like to think da Vinci was musing on presentation design when he first uttered this gem in the 13th century (not likely, you say? Well, we all tell ourselves stories in order to live…) But really, it’s an ideal quote to keep in mind when designing a presentation. Design should support and enhance content, so if a presentation’s content has been simplified as much as possible, so, too, should the design.

Keeping the design of your presentation simple will only further emphasize the importance of the content included. Know what design elements are essential and what can be left out. Never add extra bells and whistles just for the sake of it. Support the simplicity of your content with the sophistication of your design.

Simplicity begets unmitigated, uncomplicated and unfettered understanding. There’s a wealth of power cloaked in the simple. It hits you before you even know it was coming.

Explore More Interesting Presentation Tips From Maggie Summers

10 Comments »

  1. Simone Brunozzi

    October 26, 2012 @ 9:46 am

    Nice piece. Let me note that Leonardo lived across the 15th and 16th centuries, so “13th century” is inaccurate :)

  2. Lisa Jeffery

    October 26, 2012 @ 10:29 am

    Thank you, Maggie! This is something I want to share with all my students and clients. I always say simpicity is powerful, so I love your article!
    Lisa Jeffery

  3. Maggie Summers

    October 26, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    Thanks for pointing that out, Simone. My apologies for the error. And thanks for your kind words Lisa. There is certainly a lot of power in simplicity. I hope your students & clients find the article helpful as well!

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