KISS and Tell for Effective Communication

Many people have heard of and quoted the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Stupid – but most of us struggle to apply this seemingly straightforward tactic to our daily work and life. From personal experience, systematic use of the KISS principle in planning and problem solving can greatly improve performance and outcomes. These benefits are particularly relevant when it is applied to medical communications.

The KISS acronym originated around 1960 and is credited to the aeronautics pioneer Kelly Johnson,1 who used it as a central design principle for Lockheed Skunk Works engineers. This saying was not meant to be derogatory. Rather, it was originally and remains a very useful reminder that most systems work best if they are kept simple. Essentially, the simplest approach or solution in a given situation is usually the best and will produce the most favorable outcome. This message was ingrained in me many years ago by a gifted scientist who was my mentor during a Society of Toxicology internship the summer before I entered graduate school. She followed the KISS principle in her laboratory, lectures and writing with admirable results. I have tried throughout my professional career to do the same.

In medical writing, the goal should be to share ideas and advance human knowledge, not to impress (or confuse) the reader by using an unnecessarily broad vocabulary or overly complicated phrasing. In his book On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser says: “Examine every word that you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that don’t serve any purpose.”2 Clarity and readability are the tangible benefits of efficient writing. Much of the scientific and medical literature contains highly specialized terminology, confusing phrases, and superfluous information that are not needed to convincingly communicate a message. This situation may stem from the general absence of communications courses in most scientific and medical higher education programs. Professional medical writers and editors use their training and writing experience to fill this knowledge gap and assist otherwise highly educated professionals who have less medical writing experience with effective communication.

Although persuasive writing involves taking a more minimalistic approach to communication, brevity alone does not result in clarity. Efficiency and completeness are also both essential for successful application of the KISS principle to writing. This approach takes time to learn and practice to master, but there are some useful tools available to help with this process. One recent favorite is the Plain Language Online Training offered by the United States National Institutes of Health.3 This free course is one outcome of the Plain Language Act of 2010 (H.R. 946/Public Law 111-274),4 which requires that all United States federal agencies ensure that their regulations are “accessible, consistent, written in plain language, and easy to understand.” We could all benefit from adopting this lofty but achievable goal.



  1. Accessed March 09, 2015.
  2. William Zinsser. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Sixth Edition, revised and updated. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher Inc.; 2001.
  3. Accessed March 09, 2015.
  4. Accessed March 09, 2015.


Dr. Barnes cell molecular biologyLearn more about ScienceDocs Editor Dr. C. Barnes


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