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Ten great ways to communicate complex ideas

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson said, “Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess.”

Good communication helps people to understand and think about complex concepts by using techniques to simplify the concepts and create more impact.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” is great advice from Albert Einstein.

Then make the effort to understand the complex idea well enough to identify its key elements.

Decide your intended outcome. Do you intend to help someone understand a concept or idea, do you plan to get them to act on the information, or do you have another outcome in mind?

These 10 tools will help you simplify and communicate complex ideas to others in any situation.

1. Data

The benefit of data is it shows what has happened in the past.

The disadvantage of data is it doesn’t explain how variables are related. A variable is a factor that can change in quality, quantity, or size, which you have to take into account in a situation. Data comprises the facts without necessarily showing clarity to a situation.

Humanize the data

What do the numbers mean and why should I care? You need to go past the data – which may be laid out in visualizations, tables and maps, etc. — to capture the imagination or interest of the audience. Government and scientific reports are prime examples. For instance, a well written report may describe how to reduce the impact of a disease, but it needs to mention specific cases of people benefiting in their lives or the impact on a victim or survivor.

Make the data actionable

Facilitate cooperation between technical people and communicators. For instance, the main newspaper in my State is preparing a series of events and coverage of retirement, so people are being encouraged to participate in their online survey on retirement. The results will be publicized in several ways by the media outlet, and will also be used as an input into government policy and will help to influence the types of future services offered. Making it easy for citizens to express feedback and make requests will encourage the use of the data generated by governments, not-for-profits, and the private sector.

2. Logic

Carefully check that logic of your case is clearly explained. Observation or even intuition can create an initial structure for explaining a complex problem such as an issue.

In the same way you have developed a mental picture of how the earth revolves around the sun, you may develop a view, for example, about why some decisions are riskier than others. You have used logic to understand how the variables are related.

Logic is valuable in its own right—after all, if your audience struggles to follow the thread of your argument, it will be tough to convince them that the argument is sound.

3. Pictures

Pictures, visuals and images offer your audience an invaluable way of remembering the relationships between different variables. The right visual offers an easy way to see, internalize, and later recall even complicated information.

When presenting complex information to an audience, Professor Mitchell Petersen from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University says he puts up the data in a table so they can see the details: “I also put up the picture, because it makes the concept much easier to keep in mind.”

4. Infographics

Infographics are making a big impact in communicating about complex topics, making information eye catching, shareable and easily digestible. Information graphics or data visualization (infographics) are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly to a live or online audience.

Most importantly, they play a crucial role in the increasingly visual world of marketing.

See Canva’s great blog page on “40 brilliant and complex topics explained perfectly by infographics.”

Change management expert Wendy Hirsch, a consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, uses infographics as a key way to clearly communicate important business concepts to her clients. For instance:





5. Stories

Stories that summarize certain logics or relationships between variables are perhaps stickiest of all. “There are no cultures that I know of that don’t tell stories,” says Professor Petersen. “It’s fundamentally part of what it means to be human.”

These stories can become memorable, almost tangible shorthand for even very abstract concepts.

When thinking up stories, don’t be afraid to channel the ridiculous. “The dopier the story, the more people may groan—but years later they remember it,” says Petersen.

It helps also to keep in mind that stories are not just for your audience. “By telling that story to ourselves, it’s a way for us to understand the world and cement it in our own memory.”

6. Participation

Tools like data or equations or even stories are of limited value if an audience feels they can’t push back, disagree, or ask for clarification. The more senior your audience is, says Petersen, the more important it is to actively create pauses or other spaces where misunderstandings can be voiced and clarification requested.

Want to know whether your audience is with you? Consider a straightforward approach. “I’ll just stop and say, ‘Somebody please ask me a question,’” he says.

And as you answer, use your body language to communicate that you genuinely welcome the opportunity to clarify. “Do you lean forward? Do you lean backwards? Do you nod? Do you shake your head?” he asks.

Above all, do not assume that the brave questioner is the only one confused.

“Watch the expressions of the people sitting behind them. Their bodies all of a sudden relax. What effectively they’re saying is: ‘I was lost but I didn’t want to ask,’ or ‘I was lost and I couldn’t articulate the question. Amanda’s question actually sorted it out. Now I understand what I don’t understand.’”

7. Metaphors and analogies

Mahesh Bhatia gives a great example of a metaphor used in an article in The Wall Street Journal making a complex subject much easier to understand. The discussion of new “container” software in the article “Software Firms Scramble to Jump Into Containers” (4 November 2014), is difficult for a non-technical person to understand:

What makes containers so compelling? The technology encloses a program (or a piece of one) in a layer of software that connects seamlessly to the operating system and other computing resources it depends on to run. Putting a program in a container has a number of benefits, but a crucial advantage is that it can be moved quickly and easily from one computer to another—say, from a programmer’s laptop to a test system to the cloud. Given the pace of Internet time, harried chief technology officers are desperate for anything that speeds up the process.

However, the metaphor of a cake makes the concept much easier to understand:

“Think about a cake,” said Scott Johnston, senior vice president of product at Docker, likening the cake part to a server and the icing to a program. “You want to be able to change frosting from chocolate to vanilla. If there’s paper between the two, you can lift up the frosting and replace it.”

See if you can simplify important concepts by using metaphors.

8. Find ways to make it matter to them

We tend to learn best when we're interested in something – and we're interested in topics when they relate to us directly. When you're trying to explain a complicated topic to an individual, it's best to play on that “what’s in it for me” attitude and show what's in it for them. For technology, you can usually play off of people's desire for security, privacy or simplicity. Generally, you should seek to find out what matters to them, and then base your approach on those angles.

9. Explain concepts using details they already know

The idea of connecting ideas to what someone already knows has been used for thousands of years, but it works because it's one of the best ways to explain ideas. Essentially, you want find related information people already know, and expand on that.

For example, blogger Thorin Klosowski from Lifehacker says some of his relatives don’t understand what he does for a living — they've never heard of a "blog". Rather than talking about RSS feeds, what a post is, or how a content management system works, he just describes it in terms they understand: "it's a magazine, but online." This is enough for most people to understand the basic idea.

That's really simplistic, but it gets the point across. The more you can pull from information people already have and analogies they already understand, the better they'll understand the core concepts you're showing them.

10. Know which details to leave out

When you understand a concept, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking every detail is important. But describing too many details to others unnecessarily complicates the picture. You can always come back to those details later because your immediate objective is to get the main points across and help others understand a difficult concept.

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