Editor’s note: This blog post was originally published in June 2014 and updated in October 2020.
If you are responsible for progressing your business, communicating the importance and urgency of your efforts to others in your company is core to your job function. And in a world where acting quickly in response to change is a business imperative, ensuring that your message is getting through to senior leadership and key stakeholders can make all the difference in the success of your project.
The challenges we face have become more complex. External pressures, disconnected systems, and changes to internal structures in your business are all factors that can make communicating a single key point seem like a daunting and overwhelming task.
At the same time, we’ve become a world that communicates in two-minute sound bites and 140 characters. Our attention has been commodified, and we are constantly in competition with all the distractions the internet can offer. Communication styles have had to adapt to be even clearer, more concise, and more compelling for it to be effective.
But when the message you are trying to share is inherently complicated, how can anyone expect you to explain complex content so quickly and concisely?
Well, they do – and you can.
The complexity of your message it doesn’t negate the need for you to be a good storyteller who educates and moves your listeners to action, experts say.
If you’re looking for some ways to become better at communicating complex information, consider:
1. Being concise
As Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Try to keep your opening sentence to less than 50 words. After that, use the “Twitter test” and try to reduce each important point down to 140 characters. You may not hit that number exactly, but it will force you to think of boiling the information down to the bare bones.
Concision is a skill that doesn’t only help you communicate complex information, but it can help lead you to solutions for complex problems. Being able to target, identify, and express a pain point or issue is essential to solving it in a way that is ultimately successful.
2. Learning to tell stories
Scientists and other technical experts often begin a report with data and statistics. While these can be powerful for engaging the audience and adding credibility, relying too heavily on numbers can quickly bore your listeners. By thinking of how the information can be crafted into a narrative, the audience is immediately re-engaged.
“[A]s a storyteller, you want to position the problems in the foreground and then show how you’ve overcome them. When you tell the story of your struggles against real antagonists, your audience sees you as an exciting, dynamic person,” says Robert McKee, a creative writing instructor known for his popular “Story Seminar.”
Learning to express information as a story is a valuable skill because it provides important context such as what the conflict is, who is involved, and when and where it occurs. Providing this basic context does so much more than just engage your audience – it can give you a roadmap to a solution.
3. Making it visually enticing
New research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds that visual metaphors – such as an illuminated light bulb to suggest new ideas – can prompt participants to have better insights than those who are shown no image. Consider sites like Flickr, Creative Commons and Compfight.com to find images to use in a presentation.
If you’re looking for a more compelling way to present data to your team or boss, utilizing a tool with custom dashboards and different ways to visualize data will go a long way. Quick Base’s dashboard reporting tools allow users to visualize data in many forms: summary reports, charts, maps, calendars, and timelines. Users can create unlimited reports and easily slice, dice, and organize the most important and complex information.
4. Using metaphors and analogies
When Jobs first tried to explain to others what a personal computer was and how it would work, he became frustrated when others didn’t understand. But he learned to use metaphors and analogies to communicate complex messages. For example, Jobs described IBM in 1984 as “Big Brother come to life,” bringing the idea to a famous television commercial pitting the Mac against IBM. Jobs also once described a computer as “the most remarkable tool that we have every come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
Analogies have the power to “make it click” in the mind of your audience by drawing a comparison between something unknown and something familiar. This makes new information less daunting and more approachable – and thus, more actionable.
5. Continually asking “so what?”
Challenge each of your key points to ensure that you’re relating it to the listeners and their lives. Again, Jobs was a pro at doing deep research so that he understood a product thoroughly. He could put it in terms that answered anyone’s “so what?” whether the person was 6 years old or 60 years old. In 2007, when he introduced the iPhone, he said: “We’ve designed something wonderful for your hand.” Who can’t grasp that?
If you want people to care about what you have to say, you need to give them a reason. You need to tell them why. You need to understand the value this information provides not just the business in general, but how it can improve people’s lives and jobs.
6. Using Technology that Helps People Understand
Finding good ways to present information and convey complex messages clearly can be hard, but you don’t have to do it completely on your own.
Utilizing technology like low-code applications can help more people understand your message. Low-code business applications can integrate with the programs and software your business relies on to identify key issues that may be holding your business operations back. It can also be used to automate essential workflows and track progress through complicated processes, so you are always able to answer the who, what, when, and where of any issue that arises. These applications also support dashboards that display important data in tables, charts, and graphs that can be updated in real-time. Most importantly, implementing low-code applications into the processes you rely on day-to-day can quickly drive real business value – giving you the ability to communicate the why change part of your message in a way that resonates with your audience.