July 22, 2019 / Esther Choy

how to simplify complex information

This situation happens in the workplace again and again: various business units must collaborate over multiple long-term projects. However, each team struggles to communicate exactly what their value propositions are, much less what each team really does. Without writing a three-page memo, how will these teams know the best way to collaborate with each other? How do they communicate this complex information easily?

At a recent training, I saw how someone overcame this hurdle with a clever use of an analogy. Comparing the company to a restaurant, they matched various teams’ roles to well-known restaurant positions such as host, server or chef. Suddenly, their team’s activities and significance became clear.

Every career presents countless moments like this. Moments that require turning abstract and complex information into concrete and understandable concepts. Whether you’re explaining your role in a casual conversation, presenting months’ worth of research in a meeting or pitching your company to those who lack the expert knowledge, simplifying complex information is a difficult but crucial task.

Here are five quotes that provide insight into why and how to simplify.

1. “Simplicity is hard to build, easy to use, and hard to charge for. Complexity is easy to build, hard to use, and easy to charge for.”

― Chris Sacca, American Investor

As an early investor in Twitter, Kickstarter, Uber and other hugely successful tech companies, Chris Sacca knows a thing or two about what works when it comes to technology. It’s led him to this counter-intuitive truth: that complexity is easy and true simplicity is hard. But the user experience is what makes it worth investing in simplicity.

The same is true of communication. To make it easier for your audience to understand your message, you have to spend time thinking from their perspective so that you know how they will best be able to process the information.

2. “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. ”

― Hans Hofmann, abstract expressionist painter

When you’ve spent weeks, months or even years delving into data, it’s hard to figure out what’s “necessary” and what’s not. Ask yourself this question: “If my audience remembers only three things from my presentation, what would I want them to be?” And then structure your presentation so they won’t miss the most necessary information under a pile of other data.

3. “The happening and telling are very different things.”

― Karen Joy Fowler, American author

Don’t be handcuffed to chronology. The order in which the events happened to you does not necessarily make a good story. Nor do you need to include every detail of what happened to you. Let the “telling” be its own separate thing.

4. “The Curse of Knowledge: when we are given knowledge, it is impossible to imagine what it’s like to LACK that knowledge.”

― Chip Heath, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

The curse of knowledge is real. Breaking it is not impossible, but it does take time and deep thought. In the workplace, the goal of communicating information is usually to enable a stakeholder to make a well-informed decision because of the key insights you’ve shared. So focus on their needs. Make the insights abundantly clear. Keep in mind that people often will not ask for clarification, either out of indifference or embarrassment. It is the presenter’s task to know what information the audience needs to know and how they’ll process it best.

5. “The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify. Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity – that it’s this or maybe that – you have just one large statement; it is this.”

― Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic

Achebe pinpoints one of the downsides of simplicity. While it’s important not to overload an audience with information, it’s equally important to make space for the full humanity of the people you describe. By focusing on the most essential data you need to convey, you free up space so that you can better tell the human side of the story.

Presenting complex information is the most challenging type of communication. In a world where information grows with unprecedented speed, expertise becomes more nuanced. We end up knowing our fields deeply, but communicating our expertise to a general audience becomes ever harder. Being able to simplify, without dumbing down, will set a communicator apart as someone to listen to. Honing this skill takes time but is well worth the investment.


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If you want to learn more about simplifying complex information for a general audience, contact us for a complimentary working session! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a complimentary session with us today!

Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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