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The Best Way to Explain Complex Concepts – Part 2

business man explaining complex concepts to audience
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In the first post in this series we looked at how Albert Einstein believed that complex subjects – and it doesn’t get much more complex that nuclear physics – might best be explained to a lay audience. In this post we go on to look at a simple, 5-step process to help us explain complex things to your everyday audiences, to make sure that they get the best of our expertise and aren’t left gasping for air or understanding when we leave the room.


What is the purpose of expertise?

Surely it’s to help people do things? We go to a dentist because we want to have beautiful smile, and live a life without tooth pain. We trust dentists to help us improve and maintain what we’ve got for when we smile, and protect us from pain now and in the future. Now – by putting things right when they go wrong; and in the future – by advising us on how we should protect our teeth with regular cleaning, flossing and maintenance.

That dentist has trained for 7 years to allow her to practise as a qualified person to fix our teeth. Her training has included biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, pharmacy, anaesthetics, and so much more. 7 years of layer upon layer of knowledge, skills and training to make sure that when you show up with pain, she can identify what it is, where it’s from, what can be done and how it might be avoided in future. But when we sit in that chair, we don’t want a lecture on the biology of teeth, we want her to fix what’s wrong.

We want to understand what’s up and what she’ll do, but at the right level for us, in just the right amount of detail. Too little detail and we might be unsure as to whether we’re getting the right and best treatment; too much and we lose interest, and a little confidence, maybe, in the white clad woman in front of us.

Is it any different for any other kind of expert?

‘How much detail should I share…?’ is the most common question that the experts I work with ask themselves and me as we start to work on a speech together.


It’s tough being an expert

When you’re trying to help people make the right decisions, the expert tends to get confused because they  know so much of the detail, that they’re as focused on the technical complexity as they are on the result that the other parties are trying to achieve. Whether it’s a systems change, a risk calculation, an engineering solution or a strategy recommendation, there are simple things you can do to make sure you get your message across for you, and more importantly, help your audience do what they want to do with the information.


5 Simple Rules for Technical Experts and Specialists

Here are five rules for making the most of your expertise, that we’ve tried and tested with our clients in such businesses as Mercer, Accenture, JP Morgan, Ford, EY, KPMG and many others. You can follow any or all of them to help you explain complex concepts clearly. Use them and you’ll make the most of all of your hard-won expertise for the benefit of all parties.

1. Concentrate on the value of the idea to the audience

Be clear, concise and simple from the start in explaining the value of what you’re trying to do with the technology or the change, and look at the benefits, the risks and the probabilities of success and failure in what you’re trying to achieve. Start with that, then unveil the detail as required by the audience. If you don’t, then expect the following kind of ambush. To be able to do this though, you need to understand exactly what it is that the audience is trying to achieve, and that means asking lots and lots of questions before even beginning to plan your speech.

2. Assume no prior knowledge – ask before you start to prepare

You have to assume that your audience has little or no prior knowledge of the subject you’re discussing, unless your research has told you differently. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours elaborating the basics. Most complex concepts can be communicated using simple analogies to everyday things in the real world. The simplest way to make sure that you’ve got the level right is to ask. Ask before the presentation, by phone, email or face to face. Ask them what level of detail they have already and what they want in the presentation. But ask.

Then keep on asking as you go. Give them as little detail as possible, and provoke questions to check if they’d like more. In my experience, senior execs will ask if they want to know something, and get frustrated if they can’t see the value of what’s being presented right from the start.

There’s a very delicate line between patronizing your audience with explanations that are pitched too simply, and diving too quickly into complexities that some won’t understand. The easiest way to get over this is to follow rules #1 and #2.  The most usual event is actually not that we patronize our audiences, but that the expert, not wanting to treat them as idiots, chooses to go the other way, and gets too complex too soon and loses them.

3. Illustrate your points with analogies, metaphor and examples

Using these 3 techniques well, allows you to explain to those who don’t understand the basics, whilst still engaging those that do. It’s not only Einstein. King Solomon was supposedly the wisest man in the ancient world. That’s because he knew every fable and parable back to front. So, faced with any complex conundrum put to him by his subjects, he could call up a story to help him express his point of view. So the ‘wisdom of Solomon’ is as much about his ability to explain as it is about what he knew. Robert Lane’s post, shows us how to use images as analogies to help our audience understand your message.

4. Distil, condense and break into ‘chunks’

It’s always better to keep your initial descriptions simple and allow complex technicalities to come out through questioning. If your audience thinks there’s something missing or would like to delve into intricacies, they will ask. Think Subset and Superset – as we explained in the first post.

5. Use images and diagrams to illustrate the key themes

A picture, the old cliché goes, is worth 1,000 words. But in science a diagram can describe things that transcend the written word.

A single image can convey the simple underlying pattern hidden by words or equations

says Marcus du Sautoy in his fascinating series on ‘Diagrams that changed the world’ for the BBC. Follow the link for 10 other great examples of how we can all use diagrams to help us influence the people we meet.

Draw the right picture and you can literally transform the way people see the world. But remember that a diagram is more than just a physical representation of what we see with our eyes. Often it requires throwing away information, simplifying, focusing on what is essential.

Copernicus understood the power of a picture. In his great work De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, published shortly before his death in 1543, he takes 405 pages of words, numbers and equations to explain his heliocentric redefinition of the Solar System. I wonder if the Pope read all 405 pages before he sentenced him to death for blasphemy. Probably not. The image would have been enough. Because it is the diagram that he draws at the beginning of the book that captures, in a simple, single image, his revolutionary new idea: it is the Sun that is at the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth.

Copernicus theory of the solar system


The picture above shows some of the essential elements of the very best diagrams. The concentric circles are not meant to describe the precise orbits of the planets. Copernicus knew they weren’t circles anyway but that doesn’t much matter. The distances between the circles aren’t meant to tell you how far the planets are from the sun. This picture is designed only to show the simple yet shocking ‘Big Idea’ that condemned the author to death. Simply, that we aren’t at the centre of the things. This diagram completely changed humanity’s view of our place in the universe.


Test your explanations before you use them in public

Once you’ve worked out and written down your explanation, make sure you test it on people before you use it in front of an audience: find someone who knows your subject area reasonably well and someone who has little idea of it. Listen to their feedback, particularly the person with little expertise. And if they say they ‘get it’, all well and good; if they don’t, then it’s back to the drawing board for more adjustments.

Even better if this ‘testing’ is done with the members of the audience you’ll be facing. In my experience they’re often happy that you called or emailed, even if all you get is, ‘looks OK’ or ‘don’t like that’ in response.


Other Expert Opinion

Jan Schultink at SlideMagic, a man that makes his living helping start-ups and technology firms pitch ideas to Venture Capitalists, says,

“Some start-up pitches to venture capitalists are all about trying to explain a completely new revolutionary idea. Big bold images, stunning visuals, clever analogies, all needed to get the investor to understand and feel what you are talking about.”

While Nancy Duarte, presentation design guru and the author of the excellent books Slide;ology, Resonate and Illuminate, says,

“…Senior executives are one of the toughest crowds you’ll face as a presenter. They’re incredibly impatient because their schedules are jam-packed — and they have to make lots of high-stakes decisions, often with little time to weigh options. So they won’t sit still for a long presentation with a big reveal at the end. They’ll just interrupt you before you finish your shtick…”  Harvard Business Review

Explaining a complicated concept is an art form. It’s easy enough to do when you’re faced with like-minded peers but when you go beyond that cosy world, things can quickly go wrong. Follow our simple rules above to make sure that things don’t go wrong and that you get your message across to the people, whoever they may be, that need to hear, and understand that message.

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is a serial entrepreneur and the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps international and FTSE 100 companies sell themselves, and their products more effectively. Jim has many years of experience speechwriting, presentation coaching and motivational speaking, all over the world.
Jim Harvey
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