How I failed the simplicity test (and 3 ways you can pass it)

I was at a preaching seminar earlier in the year and the teacher of the course said something that really stuck for me. He said, “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.” I don’t think that quote is original to him, but it rings with a whole lot of truth. If the speaker – leader, presenter, visionary – is a little misty about his or her topic, the audience will be left completely mystified. And the key to clarify the mist is simplicity.

A few months back my former boss took me out for lunch and over a Chinese dish of sweet and sour chicken balls I began to tell him about my plans and ambitions for this website and he would ask me questions and probe and I would answer them. But then he asked this one question that took me ten minutes of rambling to answer. It least it felt like ten minutes. As I rambled on and on he waited patiently for me to finish, but by his expression and posture I knew I lost him a long time ago. Finally when I was done trying to sound intelligent he said, “But you still didn’t answer my question.

I epically failed the simplicity test. The simplicity test for a speaker or idea curator is this: can you express your idea in one simple, pregnant statement? If not it’s a sure sign that you’re not very clear about your idea. And if you’re not clear, your audience will be mystified.

Here was the question he asked me: “What do you say to the pastor who says, But I prefer physically connecting with people and shaking hands rather than connecting on social media?”

After he posed the question a second time I simply said, “It doesn’t have to be either/or. Social media compliments and enhances physical relationships.”

I was thankful for that conversation because it helped me clarify my thoughts on the subject.

Here are 5 ways you can pass the simplicity test:

1. Identify the need in one sentence.

I do this by writing out what it is I want to address. Whether I plan to write a blog post or a sermon, I need to clearly see and identify the need. Doing that helps me identify the areas I can focus on. If you can’t identify the need in one sentence, you probably don’t understand it.

2. Provide the solution in one sentence.

This might seem counterintuitive because if you’re like me you feel that every issue needs to be rationally answered point by point. The problem though is that when we do that we can easily fall into rabbit trails just like Alice in Wonderland. We miss the big points and forget the shape of the forest as we waste energy and time hacking away at every wild branch. If you can’t express the solution in one sentence, you’re probably not very clear about it.

3. Use three simple points.

Three point sermons are not dead, they just need to be reimagined. Your three points should have a clear objective, and that objective should be to back up, defend and justify your one big idea. The moment a point has become a standalone, you’ve complicated your subject. If your point is a standalone big idea, then save it for another occasion. No rabbit trails allowed. Your three points must work to buttress your one big idea, and that’s it.

3 Points


QOTD: Do you agree that a clear idea must be a simple one? Why or why not? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Thanks for helping to keep the conversation focused and for being courteous.

  • Jeff K. Clarke

    If Twitter has taught us anything, it’s that we all need to work on being clear, concise and coherent. It forces us to really think about our main point and look for the best way to say it. Love this! Thanks, Derek!