Why Minimalism is Communication 101


“Your total is $12.85. How will you be paying?”


“Would you like your receipt?”

“No, thank you.”

“I can help who is next in line.”

There are days when the check-out line is the only place we score points for clear communication. Not that the achievement is encouraging—it raises to its full, trivial stature and mocks us: “Today, at your best, you managed an information exchange that could have been handled by a moderately intelligent computer.” Maybe if our only needs were for food (and sleep) then we could fill our minds and hearts from the grocery store, as well as our bellies. But we’re determined for something more meaningful, yet frustrated for trying to access it.

There is power in the simplicity of the cashier-customer exchange. It shows how much small units of information may be handy for the listener. Even more, it shows how direct statements are responsible for the speaker feeling heard and being understood. Simplicity is so powerful, in fact, that it frequently balks at our attempts to harness it and send it to work. When the required information is insignificant, like finding out the price of dish soap, we manage. For something more significant—maybe unease about Sunday’s sermon or piercing convictions about change for your community—we exert ourselves for ideas, people and emotions; an infinite number of factors and factors which are infinitely complex. More often than not, one factor is under-or-over-represented or neglected completely, restricting its significant contribution to the situation.

That’s overwhelming. What if we stopped sweating over how direct we’re being and expressed ourselves more spontaneously? Not feeling heard? Just increase your repetition and your volume to an unavoidably noticeable degree. This response may explain one part of my generation’s seething interest in free speech and increasingly uncensored self-expression. That approach will eventually self-correct. Trying to feel heard implicates you in trusting others for some listening. But when everyone is ‘shouting’, no one is heard. Some will have to play listener. Simple communication aids listening and gathers listeners.

Yes, but what if simplicity is too great a risk to significance? There’s nothing like the sinking feeling for when the Trinity is the topic at bible study and climactically, it’s simplified to a metaphor about eggs or Neopolitan ice cream.

Minimalist composer Arvo Pärt once shared: “I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”  He composes to convey the singularity and purity of an abstract idea; the music is the minimum sound necessary to indicate that idea, bypassing all notes that are frills and fringe. Instead of undermining complexity, simplicity works to elevate the most critical and essential aspect of a thought above its various details and nuances.  It is achieving the total idea with simple elements. Then, in the act of listening, the audience hears the whole idea as something in several parts. It affirms that the simplicity used by composer allowed his audience to receive the complexity of the idea.

The task of conveying what’s on our mind introduces the tug between the things we are positive we know and things we vaguely grasp. You have a choice. Sometimes, you limit yourself purely to what you know for certain. But other times, it seems worthwhile to expand your sentences and cast around for more intricate words, hoping that groping for a thought will eventually mean stumbling into one. You could use plain wording or decorate things up, hoping that all your little gestures will get your listener one step closer to understanding you.

I notice the latter most often. It’s been my preferred method until recently. It’s pretentious. Every time, I am pretending to know more than I actually do. The simplicity of the former way gets for points for sincerity, winning over more listeners.

Minimalist conversations aren’t universally useful. If it works at the grocery store, that doesn’t mean it’s going revolutionize your next family reunion. It’s often quite appropriate to process aloud, despite the baggage of unclear wording, tangents, and assumptions. But as an experiment and a tool not often used, minimalism refreshes us to the possibilities of simple speech and its power to deepen the significance of conversations where it is closest and most important to us.