How to Make Complex Ideas More Accessible
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How to Make Complex Ideas More Accessible

In this podcast episode, we explore techniques for presenting complicated information so your audience can more easily understand.

As communicators, we often need to take complex information (i.e. financial, technical, or scientific) and make it more understandable for our audience — we’re experts and they likely aren’t. But having so much knowledge on the topics we discuss can often make the job more difficult: we dive in too quickly or use jargon that goes over our audience’s heads.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, strategic communications lecturers Matt Abrahams and Lauren Weinstein explore the “curse of knowledge” and offer specific techniques you can use to help your audience understand complex information.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Hey, Lauren, how are you doing?

Lauren Weinstein: I’m great, glad to be with you here today.

Matt Abrahams: Like me, Lauren is a lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Together, for over five years, we’ve co-taught a class on strategic communication. In addition to this work, Lauren runs Resonate Coaching. She also has a very popular TEDx Talk called “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.”

So, Lauren, as teachers and coaches, we often have to explain complex ideas so others can understand them. But lots of other folks also have to take complex technical or scientific information and make it accessible. Can you talk about some of the examples you use in class that you’ve seen where people need to do this?

Lauren Weinstein: Yes, I see this all the time. I see it with doctors, scientists, researchers when they need to communicate their content to lay audiences, whether it’s at a conference or they’re seeking funding. I see it a lot in business, when engineers have to communicate with product managers, when marketing teams need to communicate with customers, and then also when executives and founders need to communicate their strategy, for example, to their org and get everyone onboard and in alignment.

And then also, of course, with startups, they’re constantly needing to pitch investors and sell to customers and make whatever their product or service is more accessible for them.

Matt Abrahams: It sounds like almost everybody has situations —

Lauren Weinstein: Yes, across the board.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, and so in our class, we spend a lot of time talking about being in service of the audience rather than just focusing on the content. Do you want to share a few of your thoughts about being audience-centric and what that means and how it affects communicating complex information?

Lauren Weinstein: Yes, whenever I work with a new client, no matter who they are or what their topic is, the first question I always ask is, who is your audience, and what do they care about most?

And I’ll give you an example of why this matters. In 2001, Apple and Steve Jobs came out with the original iPod. The engineers were really excited because it was going to be 5 gigabytes of data, so exciting for them, but if they came out with this message to audiences and customers, less exciting. They didn’t know what that means. Is that a lot? So instead, they said, “1,000 songs in your pocket.”

Matt Abrahams: I remember that.

Lauren Weinstein: Yes, so they spoke in a way that was aligned with their audience’s level of knowledge and what they cared about. They cared about how many songs they could fit. And so it’s really important to speak in a way that’s aligned with your audience’s level of knowledge, but also in terms of what they care about most and translating it to that extent.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, and I think that example really highlights how people can fixate on the specific information rather than thinking about what’s relevant and important to their audience. It’s really about what the audience needs.

Beyond that audience-centric approach, I’ve also found that people tend to provide more information than is needed to help their audience really understand what they’re saying. It reminds me — I know I’ve shared this with you before. My mother has this wonderful saying. I’m certain she didn’t create it, but she repeats it all the time with me. Maybe I should learn from it.

It’s, “Tell me the time. Don’t build me the clock.” We really need to help people get to the bottom line earlier. We have to communicate concisely, especially when we’re dealing with complex information.

I think, with this idea of being audience-centric and concise, we can really get into some of the specific tools that folks can use to help make their complex information more accessible.

Can you share with me an example of someone you’ve worked with who did a really good job explaining something complex to get us started looking at these particular tools people use?

Lauren Weinstein: Yes, happy to. I worked with a TED speaker a while back. His talk was about a treatment that he developed for age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. When he first came to me, his first draft talked a lot about mitochondria and prokaryotic cells and cell membranes, which was really exciting for him and other scientists. But speaking to a lay audience, a TED audience, it was a bit too technical for them and less engaging.

So first, we had him start with a story. So he told the story of his father who had Alzheimer’s disease and what it was like to see that decline. He established a personal connection. And he started sharing his content in a way that the audience could really connect to and relate with.

Then he asked the audience questions. So how many of you — you know someone that’s suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia, so again creating more connection with the audience to the topic.

And then finally, we came up with an analogy to explain something that was pretty complex. What we came up with was, in our bodies, we have trillions of cells, and each of these cells are like tiny little individual cities. And within these cities, we have factories, which are the mitochondria. And the job of these factories is to take the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat and convert it to energy.

The problem is that, often, our factories face oxidative damage from toxins and environmental stressors. And this sets the factory walls on fire. The factory walls are made of this delicate wood and easily set on fire. But that’s okay because, normally, our — we have antioxidants. We have a process for putting out the fire and rebuilding the factory walls.

But what happens as we age, for some of us, is we become less efficient at this process. And so essentially, the fires become much bigger than the firefighters in our body can handle. And so the fires become out of control. The factory goes down, and then the entire city goes down. And this is why we see the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, for example.

What he developed is a supplement that’s basically a fire-proof brick. So it comes in and repairs the factory walls with this fire-proof brick and makes it more resistant to damage so the factory can be saved as well as even, in some cases, rebuild itself.

It’s really incredible. And my favorite part was, right after his talk, his daughter-in-law came up to me, and she said, “For four years, I had no idea what he did. This is amazing. Thank you so much.”

Matt Abrahams: Wow. I love the notion of connecting before going into the complexity, helping the audience relate to and understand, and there’s an emotional connection that happens. So the taking a poll, the telling a personal story, what a great way to prepare the audience for the complex information.

And the leveraging of that extended analogy really helps the audience to take the perspective of the overall information and see how those fire-proof bricks can really help.

Are there other techniques that you’ve noticed beyond personal story, beyond connecting first in analogies that have worked for clients or students that you’ve had?

Lauren Weinstein: Yeah, so I’ll share two with you. One is called chunking. And so a lot of times, we’ll have 10 different things that we want to communicate. And so recently, I was working with this speaker. He was a coach for a lot of different sports teams, and he’s known for helping turn them around. And so he’d go to losing teams, and over a year or two, he’d make them winning teams.

And so he started taking what he did on the fields into the business arena. And now he’ll speak to companies and share what they can also do to have higher performing teams.

And when we first started working together, it was, “Here are the 10 things you should do,” which is a lot. It’s a bit overwhelming. And so generally, in speaking and communication, we have the rule of three. Audiences are pretty good at digesting three discrete buckets of things.

And so what we came up with is a framework that was, step number one, you want to get your team into alignment. You want to get them all on the same page, heading toward the same North Star, and get buy-in from them.

Then step two, you want to have certain processes in place. And so we talked about celebrating small wins, and he had a number of other processes that are crucial.

And then step three had to do with resilience. So what do you do in the face of setbacks? How do you recover from those?

And so by having alignment, process, and resilience, he was able to make it a lot more easily digestible for this audience.

Matt Abrahams: I think that idea of chunking is really, really powerful. In fact, I just worked with somebody in a very similar vein, where there surprisingly were 10 ideas, and we were able to cluster them together in terms of psychological, technological, and ethical.

And really thinking about how you can chunk similar ideas together can be helpful. I often use an analogy to explain that. When you bake, for example, you often take the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients. You do your work with them, and then you combine them together. That’s that notion of chunking.

You said there was another strategy that you’ve seen used well.

Lauren Weinstein: Yes, a great book called Made to Stick written by a colleague of ours, Chip Heath, as you know, and the example he uses which I love has to do with making data more relatable.

The Center for Interest in the Public Health, at one point, they realized that movie popcorn had 30 grams of saturated fat. And they were outraged, and, “This is incredible. We’re going to tell the public, and they’re not going to believe it. They’re going to stop eating movie popcorn.”

So they came out with this message, and as you might guess, nobody cared because it didn’t mean very well. Thirty grams, is that a lot? I guess it’s bad. How bad? They needed to make it more relatable.

And so they went back. They hired some folks. And now they came out with, “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.”

Matt Abrahams: Wow.

Lauren Weinstein: And so now people are outraged. Now New York Times, CNN, ABC, everybody’s talking about this. Movie popcorn sales plummet, and the industry is forced to change their ingredients.

But just by making it relatable, that made all the difference. Just with a few short words, it was a complete game changer.

Matt Abrahams: I absolutely agree with that last point about really making data relatable and contextualizing it, helping people frame and understand it.

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. My bank account will never see a number that large.

It was too large to really comprehend. And I asked him to help me figure out a way to contextualize it. And he was very bright, did some quick calculations, and he said, “You know, it’s roughly 25 percent of the world’s money.” So taking that huge number and putting it into that perspective really helped people to understand.

And your point that you shared about the popcorn also again really drives home any type of analogy or comparison really helps. You know in our class, we do that quick activity where we ask our students within three minutes to come up with a way to explain how you shuffle a deck of cards.

The goal is to interleaf and intermix the cards. How would you explain that to somebody who’s never learned how to do it, and you can’t use a YouTube video to do that?

As you know, we’ve heard really creative ways to do it. And some of the most creative are the analogies students come up with. We’ve heard things like it’s like going through a flipbook with both hands and pushing the pages together. It’s like a zipper or gears interleafing, really interesting ways of helping people to visualize and understand the information.

Lauren Weinstein: Another one I’ll mention that I love is I worked with a client. He’s a researcher who was talking about the purification of natural gas. And he talked about cryonic distillation, and it was very technical.

And so instead, we came up with the current process is basically like a sponge that absorbs all the materials we don’t want to be in the natural gas. But this process is very energy intensive because we need to do something to basically clear out the sponge so that it can continue to keep reabsorbing the material.

And so instead, what we’ve developed is something more akin to a coffee filter or a Brita filter. The impurities fall through, but we retain everything else that we need. He went from something very technical to sponge and Brita filter, which is much more accessible for a lay audience.

Matt Abrahams: You know, Lauren, one of the things I really love about working with you is, not only are you an expert on communication, but I just learn so much from you. I’ve learned about mitochondria and sponge — wow, it’s fascinating.

Lauren Weinstein: Yeah, science.

Matt Abrahams: Most of the people I work with actually embrace these ideas that we’ve discussed today because they really want to get their point across, and they’ve just struggled with trying to figure out, how do I make it accessible without getting too deep or simplifying it too much.

Lauren Weinstein: To your point of getting people onboard, so understanding how important it is to be in service of your audience and what your audience cares about, one of my favorite stories comes out of Texas.

So in the 1980s, Texas had a huge littering problem. They were spending millions of dollars trying to convince people not to litter, cleaning up litter. Nothing was working. So they decided, “We’re going to come up with a marketing campaign.” And so for anyone who remembers Smokey the Bear, they came out with Woodsy the Owl. And it was a picture of a cute little owl, and Woodsy said, “Give a hoot. Don’t pollute.”

And they said, “This is going to be great. People are going to see this cute little owl. They’re going to stop littering.” So they came out with Woodsy. And to their surprise, littering actually went up. People started littering more after Woodsy came out.

And so they said, “Clearly, we don’t understand our audience. Who is our audience?” It turned out to be men between the ages of 18 and 35. And they were these kind of macho men with a lot of Texas state pride. And so they said, “How do we appeal to this audience?”

So they went back, and then eventually, they came out with, “Don’t mess with Texas.” And over the course of four years, they ended up saving millions of dollars. And littering went down 80%, which is completely unheard of in these types of interventions.

But I always share with clients, if you get the right message to the right audience, that’s a game changer, right? This was four words. And just those four words was able to change everything for them.

So by understanding your audience, their ethos, what they care about, you’re able to make your message, whatever it is, more relevant, connecting, and important for them.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Very, very powerful example. So in reflection, I think we’re taking away some very specific skills that people can use to make complex technical and scientific information more accessible. We’re talking about things like chunking information together, using analogies, making data relatable and contextualizing it, and begin by really understanding your audience, and what’s the most important things that you need to communicate?

And finally, connect first. Relate to the audience. Use emotion to get things started, and that will help you as you go through your complex information.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me about this, Lauren. And before we go, I always like to ask three questions of everybody who helps with this podcast. You mind if I give you our top three questions?

Lauren Weinstein: Go for it.

Matt Abrahams: All right. So number one, if you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would that advice be?

Lauren Weinstein: It would be, “Connect, then lead.” For everyone listening, there’s actually a great article in Harvard Business Review with the same title. We use it as the foundation for our course, and I use it for a lot of my workshops.

But this idea you have to connect with the audience first, you have to tap into what they care about, make your message relatable, and then you can take them where you want them to go. But that connection first is crucial.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely, and we certainly talked about that earlier. Let me ask you question number two. Who’s a communicator that you really admire and why?

Lauren Weinstein: I love Brene Brown. Again, for anyone listening, she has an amazing special on Netflix right now called Call to Courage. But she does so many of the things that we teach in our class that I share with my clients in terms of storytelling, making content accessible and relatable. Her style is just so natural, authentic, very conversational, beautiful delivery, just very engaging to watch. So I think she’s a great role model for anyone who’s trying to up their communication game.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. She’s very, very impressive. And number three, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Lauren Weinstein: I would say it’s asking you the following three questions, which is, who is my audience, what is my message, and then how can I bring that message to life through stories and analogies?

Matt Abrahams: Wonderful. I absolutely agree that that recipe leads to great success. Well, Lauren, it’s been a pleasure to chat with you in this modality. I know we work together a lot in a bunch of different ways. Thank you for sharing your insight on how to make complex information more accessible. And I hope that everybody is taking away some very specific tools that can help you in any situation when you have some really complex information that you need to get across to your audiences.

(As published on the Stanford GSB website.)


February 18, 2020