Ben Barbersmith


— Posted on Dec 17, 2010

Picture this: you’re sat, notebook in hand, and you’ve begun to write, to draw, to create. You wisely decided to go analogue in order to get your creative process started. Now you find yourself with the fuzzy outline of an idea, some fractured content, and a frame on which to hang a real and valuable piece of work.

This happens when brainstorming for all manner of tasks, as varied as blog posting, writing a Powerpoint presentation, planning a photograph or writing a quick Android app. The common theme is that your work has some quantity, but no quality. So what’s the next step?

The key to a good piece of work—be it academic, professional, creative or otherwise—is a cohesive, accessible, comprehensible message. In a word, the key to a good piece of work is simplicity. Perhaps not in terms of subject matter, or in terms of style, but in terms of message. It is critical that your audience leaves with an understanding of the idea that you are trying to communicate.

How do we get from quantity to quality; from complexity to simplicity?

Some measure of simplicity can only be achieved through clear and concise language and a flair for design, but I believe that a great deal of complexity is caused by a single flaw: the creator didn’t have a clear message in her own mind. Before you can communicate effectively, you need to first get a firm grasp of the message on which you are focused.

How do you do that? Well, let’s say you’ve started with an analogue brain dump and you’re faced with a messy page to get you started. The first step is to look over the scrawl and see what connections you can make. Look for patterns, common themes, inter-related points. Start to join things up—numbering them, perhaps, or drawing connecting lines. Spot the patterns.

As you begin to find these links, this common ground in your work, you will find yourself beginning to realise what the connections really are. Focus on a particular few points, and try to discern how they gel together. The interesting thing is not the content you already have on the page, but the common theme running through it. Once you figure out the core message or idea beneath a group, then you can think about what additional content you might want to add to it. What else might be relevant or interesting? What might reinforce the theme or even explain it?

As you continue down this path, you may find yourself able to link up not just content, but also the various emerging themes that are forming on your page. With a little extra thought and a few extra scribblings, the themes will begin to come together to form a cohesive movement. Perhaps one follows into another; or perhaps one core theme runs through the rest of them. Either outcome is good: you now have a central focus on which every aspect of your work can reflect.

As you begin to create your product–be it blog post, slides, or otherwise–keep referring back to your core theme. Are you being true to the message? Are you being concise and clear? Are you going off on a tangent? If in doubt, split your work up into multiple parts. If you have two conflicting messages, why try to communicate them both in the same breath?

This technique has worked particularly well for me on business presentations–even intimidating ones to senior management teams. It really helps me find hard-hitting messages without getting bogged down in content-heavy slides.

I hope you find success with this method. If in doubt, keep it simple!

Do you have your own strategy for staying on topic, finding clear messages and communicating clearly? Have you used similar techniques? Do you have any feedback or suggestions on my method? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Dec 17, 2010 @benbarbersmith