How the art of simplicity can change the world

Throughout history, Brutal Simplicity of Thought has immortalised people and their deeds. In an excerpt from a new book from M&C Saatchi, its founder Maurice Saatchi explains his guiding philosophy.

Maurice Saatchi, the founder of M&C Saatchi
Maurice Saatchi, the founder of M&C Saatchi

If you want your work to achieve the impossible, you will need Brutal Simplicity of Thought.

You will need a deep distaste for waffle, vagueness, platitudes and flim flam - a strong preference to get to the point.

Your mind will become a threshing machine, sorting the intellectual wheat from the chaff.

Winston Churchill was a great believer in simplicity. He liked to quote Blaise Pascal's letter to a friend that started:

I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead

He knew that to achieve simplicity is very hard. He understood that it required what Bertrand Russell called:

The painful necessity of thought

Simplicity is more than a discipline: it is a test. It forces exactitude or it annihilates. It accelerates failure when a cause is weak, and it clarifies and strengthens a cause that is strong.

When President Roosevelt wanted to persuade a profoundly isolationist America to help Britain in her hour of need, he invented a simple phrase to help him do it. He called his policy:


And he used simple language to express it:

"Suppose my neighbour's home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose ... if he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out the fire ... I don't say to him before that operation: 'Neighbour, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it' ... I don't want $15 - I want my garden hose back after the fire is over."

That's how it was done. A simple story of a fire and a hose. The rest is history. The most powerful rallying cries are simple and to the point:

Your country needs you! No taxation without representation! One man! One vote!

There was nothing complicated about:

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite

Nobody had to explain what it meant when they heard John F Kennedy say:

The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans

Or when they read on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

Nobody needed further elucidation when they heard:

Do unto others as you would be done by

Or when Martin Luther King said:

I have a dream

In all aspects of life, simplicity rules. It means the only possible words in the only possible order.

Simplicity in poetry. John Keats was sitting in a coffee shop with his friend Stephens. He was writing. He said:

A thing of beauty is a constant joy. What think you of that, Stephens?

No response from Stephens. Keats carried on. Half-an-hour later, Keats said:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

That, his friend said, will last forever. And it did.

Simplicity in art. Delacroix explained:

If you are not skilful enough to sketch a man falling out of the window during the time it takes to get him from the fifth storey to the ground, then you will never be able to produce monumental work

Simplicity in prose. Is it any wonder that Kafka lives forever, when you consider the opening words of The Trial?

Someone must have laid a false accusation against Joseph K because one morning he was arrested without having done anything wrong

Simplicity in drama. Could Shakespeare have imagined that Hamlet would be the most performed play in history; that 400 years later, there would be a performance of Hamlet, somewhere in the world, every minute, because he captured the human dilemma in ten words:

To be or not to be, that is the question

Simplicity in politics. During Britain's darkest hour, Winston Churchill was presented with the proposal for a Local Defence Volunteers Force, to be Britain's last stand in the event of a German invasion. The LDVF. He liked the plan. And approved it. But he didn't like the name. He changed it to:

The Home Guard

And so it became.

The post-war 1918 General Election was won by Lloyd George, with five words:

A land fit for heroes

In the post-war 1945 General Election, Clement Atlee defeated the war hero Winston Churchill with nine words:

We won the war. And now - win the peace

The Conservatives were helped to win the 1979 General Election by three words:

Labour isn't working

You hear it said that this search for simplicity is insulting the intelligence of the public, or treating them like morons. On the contrary, it is a mark of respect for the listener. The world is always short of time, so a precis is a form of good manners.

At this point, you are thinking what has all this to do with the time of day? Words spell money.

Simplicity in business. Every day, a blind man sat on the pavement in Central Park. He had his hat in front of him, begging for money. A sign read:

I am blind

Passers-by ignored him. One day, an advertising man saw his plight. He altered the wording on his sign and the cash started pouring into the hat. What had he done?

He had changed the sign to read:

It is spring and I am blind

When William Procter and James Gamble started Procter & Gamble, they only had one insignificant product - Ivory Bar Soap. Until they added the slogan:

99 44/100% Pure

That was the beginning of the P&G legend.

Simplicity rules. Consider the three iconic documents in Western civilisation. There really are only three of them. And they really did change the world. Their aim was revolution. Their effect was revelation. You need only look at them to be inspired. You will be deeply affected by all three. To read them afresh is to understand the power of simplicity. You don't need a Harvard PhD to follow any of them. Their opening and closing words say it all. They are, of course: The Sermon on the Mount by Jesus Christ, The Declaration of Independence by the Founding Fathers of America, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

The first founded perhaps the greatest religion ever seen:

Open: And seeing the multitudes ... he opened his mouth and taught them, saying ...

Close: And it came to pass ... people were astonished at his doctrine

The second made one country into a superpower:

Open: We, the people, hold these truths to be self-evident

Close: ... we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour

And the third launched what Isaiah Berlin called the greatest organised social movement of all time, greater perhaps than the rise of Christianity against paganism:

Open: The history of all previously existing society is the history of class struggle

Close: Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains

Nobody can resist that kind of simplicity. Its reach is global. It strikes a chord in humans everywhere. Nobody is immune. Their Brutal Simplicity of Thought allowed them to change the world. With Brutal Simplicity of Thought, nothing is impossible.

Happy ending. There is an unexpected by-product of this process: it makes people happy. It enables the human mind to function at its best, and to be supremely effective.

It allows you to have a romantic belief in your ability to change the world by an act of breathtakingly brutal simplicity. It is a licence to reject the status quo. It leads to a determined conviction that you, acting alone or almost single-handedly, can make what seems highly improbable, in fact happen.

So that even the meekest can meet life with the possibility of mastering its difficulties.

The people who do not have such belief are miserable. They are mere men of commerce: non-believers, empty suits.

By contrast, such men and women as you, find happiness in transforming one form of life into another. You know you can permanently and radically alter the outlook and values of a significant body of human beings.

You will have power through what John F Kennedy called:

The mastery of the inside of men's minds

Particularly your own.