Simplicity has a price

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Most popular non-fiction titles are aimed at an educated audience. But a reading age level test indicates that a 10-year-old could easily understand the world’s best selling business book.

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, MD, tells a story of mice in a maze. For the past three years it has been the best-selling business book. Ten million people have read it, the publisher claims, and so has my computer.

 

I used the computer to analyse extracts to assess the reading age the material requires. The program considers vocabulary and sentence structure. Who Moved My Cheese? is less than 100 pages long, set in large print and copiously illustrated. The program judges it suitable for those who have completed five or six years of education. That is about the same as The Sun newspaper and rather lower than the requirements of the Harry Potter books.

 

It is a virtue to write simply. But, beyond a point, simplicity has a price. The Sun is written by clever people for a readership of limited vocabulary and modest educational achievement. This does not allow much subtlety of thought. “Gotcha” and “Up yours Delors” are certainly direct and memorable means of expression. Such expression is possible because the sentiments put forward are not complex.

 

A distinguished children’s writer such as J. K. Rowling conveys hints of sophisticated ideas through simple structures and vocabulary and so educates as she entertains. The Sun and the Harry Potter series are good products because they are attuned to the needs of their audience. This match of capabilities to markets is the essence of successful business and both The Sun and Harry Potter are excellent businesses.

 

Who Moved My Cheese? patronises its readers in a way The Sun and J.K. Rowling do not. The moral of the story is that little people (Dr Johnson’s term, not mine) should not spend time asking who has moved their cheese, or why, or whether anyone had the right to do so. The little people would do better to act behaviouristically, like mice, and engage in an undirected search for cheese elsewhere. As Thomas Frank noted, the one question the book does not answer, or raise, is its title question “Who Moved My Cheese?”

 

Perhaps that is why, according to the publisher, much of the demand for Who Moved My Cheese? comes from those who think their subordinates should read it. Southwest Airlines purchased a copy for each employee. The president of Procter and Gamble, less generous, urged his employees around the world to read the book.

 

There are at least two recent books on the leadership skills of Moses. The prophet came down from Mount Sinai after communing with God and presented his people with commandments written on tablets of stone. “The skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come nigh” (Exodus 34). That is the self-image of many chief executives.

 

When we communicate with children, we draw on wizards and furry animals so that we can introduce them to conceptual thinking without divorcing it from objects and worlds they understand. A similar thought- that abstract reasoning would ask too much of readers – seems to be in the minds of those who publish works about Moses, commission Elizabeth I, CEO and sustain the fixation with Ernest Shackleton. I expect that “Business Lessons >From Harry Potter” is in preparation.

 

It seems no business publisher can underestimate his readers. What is depressing about Who Moved My Cheese? is not just that its promoters think that a business audience should be addressed in terms appropriate to a 10-year-old. It is that the success of the book appears to confirm that they are right. Other business books have similarly low aspirations. Jack Welch’s autobiography, the closest rival to Who Moved My Cheese? in the best-seller list, has reading age requirements only slightly above Harry Potter.

 

The literary needs of intelligent, educated adults are different. In Animal Farm George Orwell uses the device that makes us cringe when employed by Dr Johnson. The clarity of Orwell’s prose is without parallel among modern English writers. Yet his mainstream works, though fresh and direct, are not accessible to most children. Like other popularisers of technical subjects, such as Simon Schama or Jared Diamond, Orwell demands the maturity acquired by 10 or more years of formal education.

 

Yet there is one genre of business writing that blows the computer off the scale. When the program detects unfamiliar jargon, it believes it is in specialist territory that requires an advanced degree or professional qualification. And that is how it reacts to the convoluted prose and inventive phraseology of management consultants. Computers can look for vocabulary, sentence structure and grammatical consistency. They cannot decide whether what is written has any meaning.

 

People who have little connection with business cannot be blamed if they react by dismissing its intellectual content. Books about business that are sympathetic, such as those of Johnson and Welch, are much less demanding of their readers than those that are hostile to capitalism. Whatever you think of their arguments, authors such as Naomi Klein and Noreena Hertz write well and for grown-ups. Some business writers, such as Peter Drucker, aim as high – but not many. The computer tells me that if you have managed to get to the end of this article, you almost certainly completed secondary education. Congratulations.

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