“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough”


Yes, I like Albert Einstein quotes too. It’s a pertinent one though; when brands explain what they offer and try to impress, they often miss the mark by not getting it across simply enough.

So as marketers and communicators, how do we better balance the corporate needs with wider audience demands and preferences and simply get the right content to the right people?

As Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker, author of several must-read books on language, psychology and human nature, puts it;

“The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know”.

Too often then, content on websites, marketing material, press releases and social media, morphs into a communications beast that assumes everything and under explains, making it harder to understand.

This goes for all content too. Having worked with scientific, medical and academic material, the chants of ‘don’t dumb it down’ still ring loudly in my ears. What I love most about this quote attributed to Einstein is the final part;

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”


It’s not about making a point any less complete, but if there are various ways of explaining something, the simpler one is usually better, the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is (check out Occam’s razor if you want to get a little more academic on this!).

Back to Pinker who talks extensively about different writing styles and rules in A Sense of Style;

“The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate.”

Essentially, whilst it’s natural to speak, it’s unnatural to write, so establishing a rapport with the reader is key. Classic style, according to Pinker, positions the “writer, in conversation with a reader, directs the reader’s gaze to something in the world….and it works particularly well because it makes the unnatural act of writing seem like two of our most natural acts: talking and seeing.”

But as well as being able to get things across in a simple and effective way, this also needs to fit within the parameters of a message architecture. A small set of words – terms, phrases, or statements – arranged hierarchically to convey an organisation’s messaging priorities, its communication goals. It can help all teams or departments deliver consistent messages in all types of content.

It’s called an architecture because it acts as “scaffolding for your content, supporting and shaping the content you actually produce,” says Erin Kissane in her book, The Elements of Content Strategy.

And to be clear, when marketers say ‘messaging’ they’re not being prescriptive over the content creation, but giving a framework for the type of impression they want customers to take away from the content. The content marketing institute adds;

“While a message architecture should align with the corporate vision, mission, and brand values, it’s not the same as any of those things. It has three distinguishing qualities (as noted in Margot Bloomstein’s book, Content Strategy at Work):

  • It conveys level of priority
  • It’s actionable (in that it directly informs content decisions)
  • It’s specific to communication”

Here are a few templates you might find useful


And before we cower at the obvious point that this blog may not have got things across as simply as it could have – the art of getting from A-B is always a work in progress!

Rebecca Roberts, Founder, Thread & Fable  @rebecca7roberts

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