Making Ideas Real, Simplicity & TED Talks

My TEDxUQ talk

One of the critical parts of innovation is getting your great new idea to spread.  How you tell the story around the idea has a lot to do with how successful we are in doing this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of two recent events: giving a talk at TEDxUQ and the wrap-up of our projects this year in our collaboration with Wharton in their Global Consulting Practicum (GCP).

First, here is the TEDxUQ talk (please share this if you like it!):

The main point of the talk is that to innovate, we need three things: a new idea, made real, that creates value for people.  It is the third part that enables the idea to spread.  If you’re missing one of the three parts, then you have a trigger for innovation: fear, fantasy or frustration.

Now, TED and TEDx talks have often been criticised for oversimplifying complex topics – most notably by Benjamin Bratton at the end of last year.

This is where the GCP projects come in.  In this program, we have a team of ten MBA students – five from UQ and five from Wharton. They work together on a live consulting project for clients that want to expand their business in North America (and if you’re an Australian firm that wants to work with us on this, there’s more information here).  Since we started on this in 2011, I have put together all of the academic content on the UQ side, and acted as a mentor/guide for all of the teams.  It’s a lot of work, but incredibly rewarding.

We’ve run seven projects now.  Each project runs for six months, and it ends with the team giving the client a final presentation summarising their recommendations.  It’s a great learning experience, and the commercial outcomes are usually pretty good too.  Wharton has been running this program for 35 years in several countries, and they say that our project with Lorna Jane is one of the most successful that they’ve ever had.

The team presentations to the clients usually go through three stages of evolution: simplistic, complex and simple:

  • Simplistic: this is what we get when we dumb things down too much, or don’t understand the topic very well. In the GCP projects, this is most common in the first couple of months.  Simplistic ideas are dangerous because they falsely make it seem like there are simple solutions to complex problems.
  • Complex: complex presentations are ones that reflect a huge amount of the detail surrounding a problem – often too much detail.  The business problems that we are often trying to solve are indeed complex. Complex solutions accurately reflect this reality.  However, the avalanche of detail often obscures the real issues at hand, making it difficult to see a path forward.
  • Simple: this is what you get when you have a deep understanding of the situation.  I used to have a manager that said if you couldn’t explain a complex idea to people in simple language, then you didn’t understand it yourself.  Simple communication embeds a great deal of complexity in (relatively) easy-to-understand language – and usually this is what we should be aiming for.

By the end of the GCP projects, the teams always have a mountain of a data and a deep understanding of the issues facing the clients.  The problem is: how can we communicate the recommended course of action as simply as possible?  The teams often struggle with this.  They end up presenting a very complex set of ideas, because they fail to find the simple story that lies underneath these ideas.

My biggest role in these projects is to help them do this.

My TEDxUQ talk

Doing the TEDx talk gave me more insight into this.

Bratton’s argument is basically that we have two choices: simplistic or complex.  His accusation is that because TED talks reduce complexity, then they must be simplistic.

In his reply to Bratton, TED curator Chris Anderson makes the case for simple:

So I understand why someone could worry about TED’s goal of delivering something valuable in videos of less than 18 minutes. If TED talks were the only way that ideas could be shared, they might have a point. But there are countless communication forms out there in the world. Before you can answer the question “Are TED talks dumbing people down?” you really need to ponder: “compared to what?” The critics pushing the oversimplification argument seem to believe that if only people weren’t wasting their time on silly TED talks, they’d be reading books, taking evening classes, poring over scientific papers, or at the very least subscribing to the critic’s uniquely brilliant blog.

We certainly don’t think any TED talk offers all there is to know on any topic. Of course not. But you can learn enough to get excited about knowing more. A TED talk is not a book. It is not a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It can’t be either of those things. Nor does it want to replace them. On the contrary, it wants to amplify them and bring news of their significance to a broader audience.

What I discovered is that this is pretty hard.  My talk went through many iterations. I was particularly concerned about dealing with the issues around Australian aboriginal art simplistically – there are many complex social issues here that go well beyond the issues of art.

As I got feedback from a lot of great people my ideas got closer and closer to simple – thanks Nancy Pachana, Nilofer Merchant, Martie-Louise Verreynne, Rick DeWitt, Louis Ialenti and Allyson Rosen for the help! I ended up cutting a lot, and re-arranging ideas until I got to the final version.

It turns out that simple is pretty hard.

One idea that helps is narrative.  John Hagel wrote a great post on this, which includes this route for finding a narrative designed to trigger action:

Start by asking the questions that I posed in a previousposting regarding your personal narrative:

  • Given the choices I’ve made and the actions I’ve taken throughout my life, what’s the personal narrative that has led me down this path?
  • Is this personal narrative one that can help me to achieve the things that I really want to achieve or is it inhibiting me in some significant ways?
  • How could others help me to achieve even more impact and what’s in it for them?
  • What specific choices can I make and what actions can I take in the next day, week and month that will start to evolve my narrative in ways that will help me to achieve more of my true potential?

Finding the narrative is part of the challenge of simplicity.  It is what the GCP teams often struggle with, and it was a struggle for me too.

But if we want to change the world, we have to communicate our complex ideas simply.  Not simplistically, but simply.

Communicating simply is another of those things that is simple, but not easy – just as most important things are.


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Making Ideas Real, Simplicity & TED Talks

  1. Hi Tim – great talk and post. The point about simplicity is crucial. As Einstein apparently said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. If you can’t construct the “elevator pitch” about the idea, it will be very difficult to implement. There are many techniques used by consumer goods companies, who need to communicate to a usually disinterested consumer with a short attention span, cutting through something else they are looking at. If it’s a complicated proposition, there is no chance. That’s why they test structured concepts, try to develop single-minded messages, have simple strap lines for brands and (try to) develop impactful advertising.

    The other point related to this is to focus on the benefit of the innovation, as in your Xerox point. It’s easier to be simple about the benefit than it is about the features.


  2. I enjoyed the talk very much and learned from it. It is a “simple talk” loaded with inspirations and with a clear representation of the path we must travel in order to go from idea to inovation.

    The reference concerning Jhon Hagel thoughts was helpful. I will need some time to digest the difference between storytelling and narratives, but I think the effort will be worthed.

    Great job

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