Ten hundred words

A picture tells more than a thousand words. But what if you would reduce your vocabulary to not more than 1000 words? This is the starting point of Randall Munroe’s new book “Thing Explainer“.


I already mentioned the creator of xkcd before in an earlier post when I referred to his previous work “What if?” in which the author gives serious answers to absurd hypothetical questions.

In his latest publication, Munroe explains complicated things in simple words – from ballpoint pens, over data centers, to the solar system. The picture below (courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) shows an example of how the former NASA employee describes an iPhone using only the 1000 most common English words.


(click to enlarge)

While writing this post and trying to simplify my prose, I realized that for many topics the stripped-down vocabulary may be too restrictive. That the languages I know are too rich and too beautiful to prune their lexicon so dramatically. And that Munroe’s ten hundred words list may be just a gimmick. But, on the other hand, a real expert doesn’t need difficult language to make his point. Albert Einstein rightfully remarked: “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

As a technology or business presenter you’d better invest in your story than in your vocabulary. Use simple words, striking examples and compelling metaphors to explain complicated concepts and hi-tech products. Create an emotional liaison with your audience, rather than blow them off their feet with complex expositions, specialized language and sophisticated jargon.

More reading:

Mastering the mean telephone machine

In last week’s guest post, my son Robin let us discover the art of abstraction. Using the microwave oven and the smartphone as examples, he wrote about the benefits of making a clear separation between the internal mechanics and the external interface of an apparatus.

But even when appropriate abstraction is made to hide implementations detail from end-users, understanding and utilizing new machinery may be a challenging experience for many people. Technology marketers shouldn’t underestimate the intellectual capabilities of their customers, but they shouldn’t overestimate them either. While engineers and experts may consider a concept or a product simple, the average Jane or Joe may find it hard to understand or to handle. Even the fact that most of today’s articles are shipped with a (often too comprehensive) user guide, does not mean that consumers will actually read the handbook, follow the instructions, and remember them for future occasions.

Recently I stumbled upon a beginner’s guide to telephone use, dated 1917. Of course, for a 21st century digital native it’s child’s play to use a mobile phone (though I wonder if some of today’s kids would still know how to use a plain old wired black telephone set with a rotary dial…) but put yourself in the shoes of an early twentieth century low educated US citizen. Maybe for him or for her that new telephony service wasn’t that straightforward at all. I’m sure he or she has appreciated the sweet and simple stories shown on the images below.


So, long live abstraction! Long live simplicity! And long live user-focused products, with easy understandable user manuals.

Related posts:

Do you speak jargonese?

“In a world crowded with complexity, simplicity stands out. It brings clarity instead of confusion, decision instead of doubt. And the rewards are real. Simplicity inspires deeper trust and greater loyalty in customers, and clears the way to innovation for employees.” ― Global Brand Simplicity Index 2013, siegel+gale

Lately, I was listening to a conference talk about “an UART implementation on FPGA using VHDL.” And the presentation certainly rang a bell with me. Not the “Ah, that’s interesting!” bell, but rather the “Help, what am I doing in here!” one.

Although I have worked in tech industry for more than half of my lifetime and I have listened to hundreds of this type of presentations, enthusiastically embraced by engineers, I still suffer from acronyphobia or fear of acronyms.

OK, the presentation became a lot ‘clearer’ to me when the speaker expanded the accursed four-letter abbreviations into “Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter”, “Field-Programmable Gate Array”, and “VHSIC Hardware Description Language.” (yes, sometimes an acronym may hide another one.)

But then, I was gripped by a sense of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia. Why didn’t the speaker explain in simple human language that he had used a programmable chip to build a new piece of computer hardware? OK, I admit that I am more of a software guy, which may be a an explanation for why I was not appreciating the hardware design jargon. Though I’m pretty sure that I was not the only VHDL layman listening to this presentation in jargonese.

Here are a few public speaking tips for this (without any doubt) highly qualified hardware engineer ― and for the rest of us techies  too:

  • Don’t overestimate your audience. Even if there are few experts in the room that fully understand the technical details on your slides, the majority of your listeners may not (very often it’s not the engineer, but rather his or her manager that attends a conference…)
  • Apply the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. No acronyms (hehe, do you see the joke?) No difficult words. No long sentences. And refrain from technology/financial/business jargon.


Image courtesy of Manu Cartoons

  • Avoid complex drawings with detailed architectures. As a speaker you will need too much time to explain them, your audience will spend too much energy to understand them, and most often the text on the slides will be too small to read anyway.
  • Prove to your listeners that you have the “right to speak”, that you’re a person of interest and an authority on the topic you are presenting. Win their attention ― as well as their respect ― by telling interesting things instead of difficult ones.
  • Don’t just copy & paste text from a written document to a PowerPoint slide. Sentences will be too wordy and too structured. Never use your slides as your teleprompter.

So, next time you’re start preparing a technical presentation, keep Arthur Schopenhauer‘s advice in mind:

“One should use common words to say uncommon things.”

Here’s some more reading (not only for UART designers):

Simplicity always works

Yesterday I was confronted with a complex and technical topic to be presented to our customers. To be honest, it took me quite some time to fully grasp the full scope of the solution we offered, as well the associated business proposition.

Albert Einstein once said:

 “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself,”

so I decided to take a helicopter view, apply the KISS principle and build a message house. As such, I iterated both the problem and the solution, until I could fit everything into an overarching value statement (roof) and three simple key messages (pillars).

The final result, was –at least in my humble opinion– a good piece of work. A short, sweet and simple presentation, not obscured by technical details, that explained the big picture, the pains and the gains on a handful of slides. I’m not sure if my six-year-old niece will understand it (yet), but there aren’t that many little Einsteins after all.


When driving back home last night, a composition by Charles Mingus played on my car radio, which made me remember another quote, attributed to this American jazz musician:

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesome simple, that’s creative.”

Another creative day in the life of a business storyteller had passed. A day on which I look back with a simple feeling of satisfaction.