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When in Doubt, Leave It Out–Why Less Is More

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

Less Is More

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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.

Resumes
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.

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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.

Presentations
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.

Products
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.”

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Summary
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.

Reprinted from Both Sides of the Table

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Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. Follow him at twitter.com/msuster.

About the author

I grew up in Northern California and was fortunate enough to have computers around my house and school from a young age. In fact, in high school in the mid-eighties I sold computer software and taught advanced computers.

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