NextGen Know-How: Making Complex Ideas Simple

confident businesswoman gives presentation to executive team
Danielle Dyer Photo

3 minutes

5 communication tips to help leaders cut through the jargon and connect with their audiences

As a leader, you need to convey important information, concepts and business plans to stakeholders and employees every day. But how can you ensure that complex information sticks?

Matt Abrahams, author and strategic communications lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, hosts the “Think Fast, Talk Smart” podcast. In the episode “How to Make Complex Ideas More Accessible,” he discussed strategies leaders can use to explain complicated information clearly with guest Lauren Weinstein. Weinstein is a strategic communications lecturer for Stanford Graduate School of Business and an executive coach.

The first step to communicating effectively is focusing on your audience, not just the content.

“The first question I always ask is, who is your audience, and what do they care about most?” Weinstein explained in the episode. As an example, she cited Steve Jobs and Apple’s introduction of the original iPod. Engineers were excited about the device’s 5-gigabyte capacity, but consumers didn’t understand what that meant. (“Is that a lot?”) So instead, Apple said it could hold “1,000 songs in your pocket”—a benefit the audience could quantify and, more importantly, cared about.

“It’s really important to speak in a way that’s aligned with your audience’s level of knowledge,” said Weinstein, “but also in terms of what they care about most.”

Abrahams added another best practice: that leaders also need to communicate concisely instead of overloading their audience with detail, a point his mother drove home by saying, “Tell me the time. Don’t build me the clock.”

“We really need to help people get to the bottom line earlier,” he stressed.

Analogies are another powerful tool for explaining complexity. Weinstein shared how she helped a TED speaker client explain a complex scientific discovery. First, he connected with the audience by sharing a personal story about his father’s Alzheimer’s disease and asking the audience if they knew someone who suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Then he used an analogy, comparing cells in our body to cities, mitochondria to factories, and antioxidants to firefighters. This analogy made his complex treatment easy to grasp.

Weinstein also noted that chunking information into digestible groups is a go-to technique. A client was working with her to translate his 10 best practices from coaching sports teams to the business world, “which is a lot,” she noted. “It’s a bit overwhelming.

“In speaking and communication, we have the rule of three. Audiences are pretty good at digesting three discrete buckets of things,” Weinstein explained. So, she chunked the 10 tips into three key areas to make the information more easily digested by his business audience: getting teams aligned, having effective processes and building resilience.

Data also becomes more meaningful when framed in a relatable context. Instead of just stating that movie popcorn has 30 grams of saturated fat, it resonates with consumers more to say, “’Movie popcorn has more saturated fat than a bacon and eggs breakfast, a hamburger and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings combined,’” Weinstein explained.

Abrahams additionally emphasized that comparing concepts to relatable ideas or objects is very effective in making people understand. “I worked with a senior-level banking executive, and he was explaining how much money went through his bank globally every day. And the number was astronomical. … It was too large to really comprehend.” He helped the executive explain the huge number by comparing it to 25% of the world’s money supply. That put it in perspective.

“If you get the right message to the right audience, that’s a game changer,” Weinstein summarized.

By focusing on connecting with your audience—whether that’s the board, senior leadership or your team members—and using strategies like analogies and framing data, technical experts and leaders alike can make any complex idea accessible.

Danielle Dyer is an editor for CUES.

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