“For a few seconds at least, more seconds than that, there is no resilience in this material when it is at a temperature of 32-degrees. I believe this has some significance to our problem.” Those words were from Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in physics, explaining to a Congressional committee why the O-rings in the Challenger space shuttle exploded upon launch in January 1986. Feynman made his comments after dipping an O-ring into ice water, further underscoring his message.
Feynman was one of many scientists and learned experts contributing to the report on the disaster. Still, his simple statement made the complexity of what happened crystal clear to the public.
Feynman knew how to get his message across clearly. This lesson is what all good leaders know. And while this idea is obvious, leaders often forget it, not because they are ignorant or stupid but because they are caught up in the moment and forget that simplicity is the better answer.
Here are some great examples from history.
When Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation in his first inaugural address in March 1933, the country was financially and emotionally prostrate. Millions were out of work. People wanted answers. What Roosevelt did was straightforward. His message was one of reassurance. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Doing so slew the dragon metaphorically. Yes, people were afraid, so they needed to get past the fear. Roosevelt offered a path forward.
When John F. Kennedy addressed the media after the botched invasion of the Bay of Pigs in May 1961, he owned the problem. “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
Kennedy said, quoting an old adage. Even though the invasion had been planned under the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy went through with it and held himself accountable.
In the wake of the slaughter of nine Black parishioners by a racist gunman, Barack Obama stood at the pulpit of Emanuel AME church where the slayings had occurred and intoned the spiritual, “Amazing Grace.” His vocalization encouraged the audience to join in as a gesture of solidarity in the face of unspeakable loss.
In each of these moments, the words were clear, and the message was even more apparent. Each president used words that painted vivid pictures: fear, orphan, and a hymn. The challenge for leaders is to integrate simplicity into their presentations, especially when addressing challenges and crises. Here are some simple tips to follow.
Address the elephant in the room. Play it straight if people are worried about a disaster, a plant closing, or even a new competitor. Don’t dance. Get to the main issue immediately. Failing to do so makes the leader seem as if he is avoiding something.
Avoid nuance. Speaking around issues, or being too clever by half, may be okay for meetings or one-on-one communications, but it is deadly when addressing significant issues.
Show and tell. Illustrate the problem with words that conjure images, just like Richard Feynman did when testifying to Congress. Bring photographs or related images. Avoid charts. Please keep it simple and to the point.
Celebrate heroes. Talk about what people are doing to solve the problem. For example, an IT programmer working overnight to re-route the electricity grid, or a first-responder rescuing a child from danger, spread the good word. Let people know that some good is happening for their benefit.
Provide hope. When big problems occur—natural disasters, failing infrastructure, school closings—people want answers. Now. Sadly, the answers are not always forthcoming. What leaders can do is play it straight. Tell people that you are mobilizing resources, and you will provide immediate assistance. Give them the hope that you care, and others do, too.
No leader will get it right all of the time, and so then it is wise to remember the words of poet Maya Angelou, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
Simplicity in the fog of over-information, or more likely disinformation, is a virtue. It may not be easy to find, but it must be put into practice if the leader wants to bring people to her cause.