Storytelling with Simplicity

Storytelling with Simplicity

What is Simplicity?

Simplicity is the opposite of complexity and should be a driving force in your professional life. But how do you get there?

It’s, well…simple. You know you’ve achieved simplicity when you hear your colleagues, customers, or users say things like:

“I fully understand this decision and the next steps,” or “This user interface is intuitive and easy to use.”

Any person of reasonable intelligence should be able to leverage simplicity for success. Don’t be afraid if you’re not an expert on a specific topic. Use cold logic, eliminating both sentiment and self-interest from your judgment. In other words, trust your common sense.

For instance, while it may take you hours or days of head rattling to reach an outcome, recommendation, or decision, your audience doesn’t need to relive the process with you. This is especially true when crafting a presentation.

Simplicity in Storytelling

Executives, usually short on time, are used to processing lots of information quickly and get impatient when they feel someone isn’t getting to the point.

In school, we were taught to construct stories from the bottom up – like a debate – laying out all the data and finishing with conclusions and recommendations. It’s human nature to front-load every fact, every data point, every bit of convincing research you worked so hard to obtain. But do this, you risk losing your audience’s attention.

If you want to be heard, follow three simple steps:

  1. Tell your story top-down.
  2. Make recommendations first.
  3. Explain the underlying analyses and rationales.

This can seem counterintuitive. In fact, I once tried to convince colleagues of the advantages of telling a crisp story top-down – and failed. While I was heading the strategy department at a major conglomerate, a senior finance colleague approached me regarding an upcoming presentation. This colleague asked me to provide feedback on the draft slide deck for the planned hour.

The deck was way too long – 60 pages. And the story was told bottom-up, with all the key findings and recommendations presented after page 50. I told her to cut the deck to 20 to 30 pages and start with the key findings and recommendations.

When the presentation took place, the board room was filled: the CEO was sitting at the top end of the table, with other leaders and about 10 consultants sitting all around – let the show begin!

The deck was unchanged. The presentation droned on for 15 pages and 30 minutes of dull evidence, facts, data, and statistics. The CEO became restless. He interrupted and asked for the key findings, and he was told that they were to be presented “shortly.” The presentation went on. With about 10 minutes and 25 pages to go, the CEO said he would have to leave soon. The presentation went on. Suddenly, the 60 minutes were over, and the key findings and recommendations were nowhere to be seen.

The CEO was visibly disgruntled and left. He had neither heard the key findings nor was he enabled to decide what was next. In his eyes, the consultants were disorganized and inefficient. How could he take them seriously? If they had observed the basic tenants of simplicity, the CEO would never have doubted them.

Understanding and Applying the Power of Simplicity

When I was still relatively new to the profession of management consulting, I remember walking down a long hallway at a major German car manufacturer with one of my partners. We were discussing a client-related matter, and the partner said, “Trust your gut: when something seems shy, it probably is – this is common sense.” I took his advice. You can do the same and I assure you that your confidence will increase over time.

In future posts, I will discuss why simple is very often hard to achieve, take a look at some of the masters of simplicity, explore why simplicity is so important in times of big data and AI, and discuss practical examples of how to apply simplicity in the business world.


About Peter Eckart

Peter Eckart is a rocket-scientist-turned-top-management-consultant-turned-senior-executive. As a McKinsey consultant, senior executive, and, now, independent consultant, he has been reporting into or advising CxO-level management for over 15 years. He also consults with GLG Projects.

Passionate about creating impact by applying the principles of simplicity, he has over 20 years of experience in business strategy, product development, and operations across numerous sectors (focus on high tech, aerospace, retail), functions (focus on strategy/business building, product development/innovation, marketing/sales), and geographies (U.S., Europe, Middle East).


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