6 Ways to Clearly Communicate Complex Information

It’s difficult enough getting people to listen these days, but when you’re trying to impart complex information it’s like trying to get a 2-year-old to understand the Gettysburg Address. But there are those who excel at getting others to grasp even the most complicated information, and you can learn to do the same.

We’ve become a world that communicates in two-minute sound bites and 140 characters, but how can anyone expect you to explain complex information so quickly and concisely?

Well, they do – and you can.

Many of those who work with complex information believe it can’t be done, and hence we have the mind-numbing, jargon-riddled, overloaded PowerPoint presentations that do little to engage or inform. That can be frustrating for everyone involved, and even disastrous for your career or company if a boss or customer ignores what you’re trying to tell them.

So how do you present complicated information that anyone can understand?

Just as you would any other information. It needs to be clear, concise and told in a compelling way. Just because the information is complex doesn’t cancel out the need to be a good storyteller and convey your information in a way that educates and moves your listeners to action, experts say.

If you’re looking for some ways to become better at communicating complex information, consider:

  • 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.
  • Taking an improvisation class. At Vanderbilt University, for example, students are put through improvisational theatre to help them be more relatable when conveying complex ideas. Improvisation classes have been shown to teach people to react and adapt to situations and to think more creatively. Learning to think on your feet can be critical when you’re conveying complicated information, because you need to be able to change tactics if your audience isn’t grasping the information.
  • Learning to tell stories. Scientists and other technical experts often begin a report with data and statistics, but that bores listeners. By thinking of how the information can be crafted into a story, the audience is immediately 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.”
  • Using visual metaphors to help the audience understand and remember. 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.
  • Channeling Steve Jobs. 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 ideas. 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.”
  • 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?

What are some techniques you’ve used to convey complex information?














Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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