When in Doubt, Leave it Out (Why Less is More)

Posted on Nov 21, 2010 | 70 comments

When in Doubt, Leave it Out (Why Less is More)

It’s counter-intuitive – especially to Americans.  But often less is more.

Minimalism beats clutter.  Substance trumps verbosity.

For years I’ve been offering advice on how to better communicate and for years I’ve seen most people commit the same universal mistake: Including too many details.  Less is more effective.  Less has more impact.  Less actually takes more effort.

So let’s start with resumes as the perfect metaphor and then expand.

Let’s say you’ve had 3-5 jobs in your career since college and for each job you list 5 key achievements.  If the recruiting manager’s job consisted solely of reviewing your resume it would be an easy task.  They’d read the whole thing and you’d look like the stellar candidate you know you are.  The reality is that they have hundreds of resumes on their desk so they apply filters and spend more time on those that get through the filter.  They look quickly for key facts such as where you worked, how long you were there, what role you played and maybe they’ll look for some key accomplishments.

So the problem is that if you have a few outstanding achievements they get lost in the sea of all the other shite you put in as fillers to make it look like you did a lot more.  Many people feel the need to tell the reader everything they worked on rather than the 3 biggest accomplishments.  I always advise people to only put the things that had the biggest impact to maximize the chance that they’ll actually be seen.  It follows the same rule as with comma’s, “when in doubt, leave it out.”  WIDLIO.  That way the reader isn’t searching through a haystack to find your needles.

VC Pitch Decks
My recommendation is to have an 8-12 slide decks with only the most critical factors of your business.  The great thing about the VC pitch deck is that you can have 30 slides.  The first 10 can be the “main event” and the next 20 can be listed behind a slide called “appendix.”  Investors don’t mind this – if they’re interested they’ll read more slides.  But the people who get 100+ decks / month can quickly get through yours and see whether there is a fit.

Each slide should be minimalist, more graphics and less text.  Where there is text it should be modeled after the resume (i.e. bullet points, shortened text, easy-to-read).  Often the bio slides have 3-5 people’s names on them followed by long paragraphs of their achievements.  If a VC only read your deck that would be fine but we’re no different than recruiters – we get more paperwork than we can process.  The easier you make it the more likely we’ll see “the good stuff.”  Less is more.

You’ve been given 10 minutes to stand on stage and tell what your company does and why it matters.  Too many people have 15-20 slides.  Do the math – you’ll never get through it all.  If you do, nobody will remember what you did.  The golden rule for slides is to assume 1-2 minutes per slide – and that is if you’re well practiced.  So if you have 10 minutes you should have 7-10 slides with huge graphics, limited text and large fonts.  Leave the audience wanting to learn more.  Make 3 big points and repeat them so that people can remember.  Give them the iPod not Microsoft Office products.  Less is more.

Analysis / Conclusions
One of the most common tasks of “knowledge workers” is to analyze a situation and present conclusions to others in order to make decisions on a project.  Throughout my career I’ve produced hundreds of these reports.  In order to improve the efficacy of my reports I often would write an “executive summary” as the start that would have one paragraph describing the problem I was trying to solve, one paragraph talking through the options considered and one paragraph with my conclusion.

I would then have as many pages of analysis as required to show the detailes of my review.  But I knew that the busiest people often wanted to know the answer up front and to probe into the details if they were concerned with how we got to an answer.  I never wanted to “bury the lead.”  For the senior executives reading my reports, less was more.  They often wanted the answer quickly.

One of the great developments over the past five years has been the simplification of software.  We spend the previous 15 years with annual releases of bloatware.  Apple has shown us the way.  If you can pick up a product and use it with no manual it is well designed.  And nobody RTFM’s.  Palm did a great job before Apple and before they had a brain fart and didn’t realize that people wanted email on their PDA’s – ceding the market to Blackberry (who in turn somehow haven’t figured out how to do a browser in the 4 years since Apple launched the iPhone).

I review many products every week.  I’d say I see way more products with too many features / too much complexity than I do ones with not enough.  I’m going to write a post soon with my personal product design philosophy, “design for the novice, configure for the pro.”

There are so many instances in the business world where less is more that I’d encourage you to always ask yourself whether this might actually be the case in your situation.  This includes emails, phone calls, elevator pitches, presentations, products, resumes, training manuals, you name it.  I can’t say it always applies but more than you’d imagine.  Remember the adage: when in doubt, leave it out.

A Word on Hypocrisy
Wait a second. You’re telling us that less is more? You, the king of the overly long blog posts?

Ha. Yes. I think my blog posts would be far better if I made them 50% of the length. The problem is that often less takes longer than more. It’s the irony of less. Less is more powerful but it’s often harder to produce. I made a decision in blogging that I wanted to opt for frequency and depth of thought. If I took the time to write less I would produce 50% of the content.

The normal process for me is sit at my computer for an hour (usually at 10pm), crank out a quick post, spell check, find an image and hit publish. Often the next day I’ll edit it 10% at the margin when I re-read it and find errors.

I opt for more because in the case of my blog – less would take too much effort.  In other activities I actually put in a lot of effort to deliver higher quality outputs with less.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Thanks for a good post. I agree about 12 pages should be about right with seperated detail (seperate PPT's) on the things an investor is going to ask about, depending on their POV.

    The Executive Summary should be kept to a one page…have seen some two pagers and they seem to have a lot of redundancy.

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    Great post and very true.

    By the way, BlackBerry did finally figure out how to do a browser with BlackBerry 6. It even does a better job of rendering text on non-mobile web sites so you don't have to scroll back and forth as you do on the iPhone…

  • Christian Hudon

    Mark, for blog posts I think less is more in another way (which you are doing): a few insightful posts per week beat 3-4 posts per day of varying degrees of quality. I'm subscribed to other blogs too, and I just don't have the time to keep up with a blog that posts multiple times per day.

    As for the length, when I've learned from past experience that the vast majority of posts are insightful, the length isn't really an issue.

    And personally, because I've found in the past that the vast majority of posts from your blog and insightful and teach me something new, I really don't mind the length.

    I don't know how people can be subscribed to even

  • Christian Hudon

    Ugh. Failure to edit and read what was below the scrollable area before posting! The final post was meant to be only the first two paragraphs. Oops! :-)

  • sbmiller5

    Never responded to your tweet about which Twitter I use, but I use NewTwitter because I think it's actually really simple, but has deeper configuration when I want it…I'd say after about two days, I was really happy with the switch

  • sbmiller5

    But the only thing they do, has been done by Google, through Chrome and IMO Chrome's is better.

  • sbmiller5

    Reminds me of a Case Study I completed recently for a job…I almost ran out of time trying to slim down my answers to fit into the maximum # of words.

  • http://www.eblizz.com Martin Wawrusch

    I disagree. Different users have different usage patterns. As much as I like Chrome I find their start page not working for me because I access too many sites on a regular basis. Google shows the most recently closed and the most used sites, which is of no value to me. With myfav.es I can choose from my preselected sites, and best of all I can use it on all browsers (Being in the Web business I am using 4 to 5 daily). And the sites are always listed in the same order.

    They also provide some additional information on top of some sites, for example number of unread emails in google. Now this is nothing special but it shows in which direction this product can go.

  • sbmiller5

    You actually can edit most visited to only include sites you want. For example, I removed all sites that I already had bookmarked, or I can choose to keep a site on “most used” if I I think it will drop-off the list. It also isn't limited at all – ie: No Quora on MyFave.es ???

    I also use multiple browsers and the cross-browser is nice, but I'm checking my mail, twitter, quora, etc on multiple browser, I'm only doing that on main browser…Chrome…multiple browsers are for specific actions (for me anyway)

  • http://www.eblizz.com Martin Wawrusch

    You can add your own sites too and select icons for that. And you can also suggest to the authors sites that you want to have included (they will create a nice icon for that and put that onto the list). Not having a quora icon there is actually very positive – I spend way to much time on that site even without a direct link 😉

    You are right that you can somewhat customize the most used bar but as one is limited to 8 items (at least I have never found a way to add more) I never made use of it.

  • sbmiller5

    ha – i have the same problem with Quora and certain Disqus discussions…

  • http://twitter.com/CleenCell CleenCell® Wipes

    In the 140 characters or less age, less is the new black. But for a blog like bothsidesofthetable, entrepreneurs want as much info as possible so more is usually appreciated. (at least by me).

    For sales copy or VC pitching, you got to whet their appetite leave them hanging and asking YOU for more….and still keep answers short.

    Great photo in this post. lol

    – Nima

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Farjad-Fani/100001272905702 Matt Farjad Fani

    Couldn't agree more. Same concept with developing software with many startups getting out of control. Less is more because it's more simple, direct and to the point.

  • http://www.sc2review.com Eric | Starcraft 2 Strategy

    Less definitely takes way longer than more – figuring out what to cut while still getting the point across (and which points to get across) are crucial.

  • http://twitter.com/edwinmoh Edwin Oh

    Simplicity is good; it cuts to the heart http://bit.ly/9S1NjO. (And I have the same editing problem as you with my blog posts!)

  • http://twitter.com/garious1 Garious

    I love the idea of 'Less is More' — whether you're designing your home or making a slide presentation at work. I think there are cases when this slogan applies and when it doesn't. I believe that many people are into it simply because they're tired of fluff and all those marketing pitch – just get to the point. So, can you write a blog post in 300 words? Nah, just kiddin'. Cheers!

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    “The problem is that often less takes longer than more.”

    This is so true that it hurts.

    Elegance is hard work. So is the simplicity which is critical to achieving elegance. Go figure.

    P.S. I am amazed at how much you are able crank out. Even with the longer posts it's still worthwhile and meaningful reading (even the one about name tags — haha — still laughing about that one).

  • Kevin Noel

    In essence, you're saying this is a shitty-er post than your usual…? because “less would take too much effort” on your part. Nice to know.

  • TimR

    While all the examples have merit, “design for the novice, configure for the pro” is my favorite line here. It is great shorthand to explain the balance to people having trouble 'getting it'. Thanks

  • Chad

    It's hard to take the author seriously when he opens by citing a grammar rule and in the same sentence puts an apostrophe in the plural word “commas.”