Why the KISS Principle is More Important than Ever

The KISS Principle: Keep it simple, stupid.

This delightfully abrupt design concept, reportedly introduced by the U.S. Navy in 1960, has long been a guiding rule of engineers and architects, product developers and copywriters alike. And regular readers of the C.Fox intersection know how firmly we hold to the KISS Principle, whether we’re discussing creating sharp digital content, impactful public speaking, or coining the perfect soundbite.

The latest example of why simple writing is important comes via a quirky York University study, which set out to prove conventional wisdom that no one ever reads terms-of-service agreements:

The researchers made up a social networking site … and asked their study participants to sign up for it. Before they could, though, they’d have to agree to the site’s terms and services. Hidden within this agreement document were two strange requests: Is it cool if we share all your information with the NSA? Oh, also, we’re going to go ahead and take your firstborn child as a form of payment, okay?

[As it turned out:] Most people — 98 percent — didn’t even notice the firstborn clause, and just one person out of the 500 study volunteers objected to the NSA policy.”

So, what should we take from this, other than a reminder to read ALL of the fine print?  How about an equally important reminder for all of us as writers that people are far more predisposed to scanning, vs. thoroughly reading any kind of content. (Even this post is no exception. Did you get that?)

So…KISS and write accordingly. This means:

  • Swapping multi-paragraph tomes of information for chunky, bulleted sections of text to draw the reader in to the most important elements of your message.
  • Helping your reader retain complicated concepts by grouping them via the “Rule of Three”.
  • Remembering that keeping the most critical information “above the fold” isn’t advice just for newspaper editors. (As Amy Schade of Nielsen Norman Group writes, “We don’t go to a [web]page, see useless and irrelevant content, and scroll out of the blind hope that something useful may be hidden 5 screens down.”)

If you’re a communicator worth your salt, you already know that the KISS Principle is important. But adhering to it in your writing, at every opportunity, is what makes the difference between wasted moments and critical opportunities to move your mission forward.