More is Gross

Build a a strong line of defense against excess

Every summer, my love-chop Marti and I spend a week in northern California. We plan our trip with singular focus: to curate a week of experiences that will divert so sharply from our everyday-Madison experience that We Know We Are On Vacation.

This year, our highlight was a visit to the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco, where we beheld the Maira Kalman exhibit.

Yes, Kalman’s New Yorker covers were on display. So were her twelve children’s books. And the requisite multimedia kiosks, where videotapes played on endless loops.

In a replay of her 2008 TED talk, Kalman told the story of picking up the book The Elements of Style, which she’d somehow avoided earlier in her academic career. As she read it, she thought, “This book is amazing. People should know about this book!”

She decided it needed a lift, a few illustrations. So Maira Kalman, a Polish Jew, called the WASP-y White estate, and they agreed to give Kalman free rein.

Fifty-six illustrations later, we have a renewed classic, The Elements of Style set to images by Kalman’s unique hand.

I treasure my copy. It is a lovely reminder that, sometimes, adding a skillful touch to a classic work strengthens the overall effect.

But many times it doesn’t.

I tasted this firsthand several months ago when we were out to dinner with Charles Landry, the British author of The Art of City Making, and who—God help me—will make an appearance in Madison before I die. Charles ordered a fish dish; it was highly recommended by the waiter.

When it arrived, the fish was draped in a gooey blanket. Marti leaned in to inspect and asked, “Is that melted cheese on your fish?” Charles confirmed mid-bite, and said, “It’s a bit like over-egging the pudding, isn’t it?”

Translated into American, Charles meant that often, adding more of a good thing doesn’t make the final product better. It makes it worse.

In our second year of recession I see many businesses getting trapped in the death spiral of “more.” If we add more features, we’ll have a reason to talk to our customers! If we buy more advertising, sales will pick up! If we get our messages out on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, we’ll see ROI!

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Unless you’re Maira Kalman and your product is a classic equivalent of The Elements of Style, more is gross. By simply heaping on more, you’re coming across as desperate. And lazy.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain refers to it as “Owner’s Syndrome,” when the realization comes that he’s losing money and customers:

“He thrashes around in an escalated state of agitation, tinkering with concept, menu, various marketing schemes. [The] schmuck tries one thing after another ... and the already elusive dining public begins to detest the unmistakable odor of uncertainty, fear and approaching death.”

Rather than doing more, thoughtlessly, we should consider doing less, thoughtfully.

When Jason Fried (37 Signals) asked Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com) for business advice, Bezos replied: don’t focus on the latest and greatest; focus on things about your business that never change.

This focus—on the basics, on the core elements of your product or service—requires what many American business leaders lack: restraint. That’s why Google put a full-time vice president, Marissa Mayers, in charge of making sure that the Google home page doesn’t get cluttered. They need a strong line of defense against More.

Think about your business. What never changes? Focus on that. The rest is just over-egging the pudding.

Or as Strunk and White exhort in The Elements of Style, “Omit needless words!”

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all details and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Rebecca Ryan is the founder of Next Generation Consulting, a firm that helps companies and cities retain their young talent.

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