Art of Public Engagement: The KISS Principle

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

I think most readers will agree that an essential skill for any planner (or anyone who works with the public) is explaining complex topics in simple or, I would prefer to say, straightforward terms. Many of you are familiar with the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid.

I heard it first in the Boy Scouts and thought it originated in the military. It seems, however, to come from the aeronautics industry, as an engineering principle. Wikipedia explains the term if you’re interested.

My staff and I will make a presentation about the regulation of food trucks on Tuesday. Although I do not use the term explicitly in teaching or mentoring, we will rely on KISS to cut through the many variations on “food truck,” and propose a code amendment that: a) answers the most important questions being raised and b) we can actually administer.

A Big KISS

There is a problem with KISS, however. That problem seems inconsequential when we’re talking about food trucks. But what happens when we’re talking – as we also are here – about the interaction between soils, surface runoff, wetlands, aquifers, infrastructure, land use, and inevitably, politics? Beyond a certain point, a point that is quickly reached if our planning is truly to be comprehensive and long-range, if it is truly to consider alternatives, we encounter almost boundless complexity. And so, at least in the not so distant past, we approved construction of all that pavement, put the runoff in a big pipe, and sent it downstream. A big KISS for those who live below.

KISS and Complexity

I have labored to find a quotation I thought I knew: “The world is not only more complex than we do understand, it is more complex than we can understand.” I thought I knew who said that, but apparently not. Perhaps someone reading this will know the source. For now I make the point without taking credit and pose my question. At what point do our attempts to communicate make the world too simple? At what point do we owe it to our constituents to say, “This cannot be simple.” How do we manage that without patronizing our audience or, worse yet, invoking a negative reaction. It seems to me, for example, that much climate change denial is rooted in mishandled scientific communication. Check out the work of Dan Kahan – to which I will return in a future column – on this point. An entry point is his one-page essay in the August 2012 edition of Nature.

To conclude for now, I am interested in what readers have to say about communicating difficult, complex topics. How do you do it? Please share your experience with me at lee@roundriverplanning.com.

What to Read?

Following on the theme of communicating about complex problems, I think many western planners would enjoy The Empire of the Beetle, written by Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk.


Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974.


Published in the July/August 2015 Issue

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