December 30, 2022 / Esther Choy

To communicate complex ideas, try linking it to simply ideas through storytelling.

The holiday season is here. The history and symbolism of holidays are complex. Yet that doesn’t stop us from celebrating. That is because we link the holidays (complex idea) to celebration (clear).

As leaders, we live in and wrestle with complexity every day. So how do we communicate complex ideas to our audience and ensure they stay engaged? Try linking complicated ideas to understandable concepts. This sounds simple, but what does it actually look like?

As a leader in healthcare administration, Dr. Garry Choy must help diverse audiences understand—and care about—-the nuances of our healthcare system. Alicia Jo Rabins addresses a different type of complexity in her role as a Jewish educator.

As experts in their respective fields, Choy and Rabins communicate complex powerful ways. Here are 3 strategies that can help business leaders in any field address complicated ideas without watering them down.

#1 Draw in your audience with what is motivating or relatable.

After five minutes of explaining the details of how he could fix Dr. Choy’s broken A/C, the mechanic revealed, “Your car could set on fire and suddenly stop.” Until this motivating information had been revealed, Dr. Choy had only been half-listening. He’d already decided he wouldn’t leave his car for repairs, because a broken A/C didn’t sound urgent. When the mechanic mentioned the potential of a car fire everything changed.

Dr. Choy explained: “I started to understand the why. The engineers had designed it so that check engine light would come on because this seemingly peripheral system was intertwined with the engine itself.”

If the mechanic had led with the why first, Dr. Choy would have understood the urgency to fix the A/C much sooner.

This is a common situation in business communications. We feel compelled to give our audience the context before we describe the most important part of our message — why we are sharing it with them. Until they understand why they should care, the context isn’t going to seem relevant. Listeners perk up when they know what’s at stake.

For Alicia Jo Rabins, it’s the ritual that helps her audience relate to Judaism. “I’m lucky to be working in a tradition,” explained Rabins “which is behavioristic…the belief part is not focused on. We show up, we take care of people, we interact with the tradition, and it’s a bonus if you’re transported to this other world of spirituality.”

With the high-stakes of “being spiritual” taken off their shoulders, Rabins’ students are welcomed into the practices of Judaism.

Every business situation is different and will call for different points of entry. To find the right starting place, ask: What will motivate my audience to engage with this topic? What will help them relate to it?

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#2 Lead with the sensational.

As Dr. Choy was fundraising for a health tech startup that tackled the issue of healthcare credentialing, he faced an uphill battle when it came to communicating complex ideas. Most investors didn’t even know what credentialing was, let alone why it needed to be improved. So to engage his audience, he started with an attention-grabbing story:

“Credentialing is that process that ensures clinicians are fit to care for patients,” Dr. Choy explained. “As we were working to understand the process, we shadowed a team in Alaska. Because where do doctors go to try to hide out? In Alaska. They think they can escape their past in this faraway place. But turns out, Alaska has one of the best credentialing teams. It’s really hard to get past these guardians of the healthcare system during credentialing.”

Similarly, when Rabins teaches about the methodologies of interrogating holy texts, she starts with a sensational example of what it looks like to question the Torah: Students must read a passage from the Torah at their bar mitzvah based on the date of their ceremony. Thus she’s had vegan students who end up reading about animal sacrifice. “Their whole speech is about how wrong it is, and their commitment to animal rights,” Rabin explained.

Just as Dr. Choy’s story about Alaska illustrates why credentialing is not just a rubber stamp, but a valuable — though hidden — part of healthcare, Rabin’s story illustrates that it’s okay to disagree and even argue the Torah.

#3 Ask good questions.

This last strategy may seem counterintuitive. Don’t you need to be good at answering questions? While this is often true, asking questions can help you arrive at the core of your message.

For Rabins, asking good questions looks like helping people open up. “If you ask people if they believe in God, there’s a good chance they’ll say no. What pops into their mind is this man with a beard in the sky. But if you say, ‘Have you ever experienced a sense of the sacred?’ That same person might answer, ‘When I’m in the woods, and the light is coming down through the leaves.’”

Rabins sidesteps the complicated history of the word “God” and replaces it with a more open-ended idea. By decreasing the complexity of her question, she is able to draw in her audience.

Dr. Choy has also seen the value of asking good questions when it comes to complexity: Sometimes the best questions are the most obvious. When communicating complex ideas, people may be afraid to ask the obvious questions because it will look like they aren’t understanding what everyone does.

Dr. Choy’s team was tasked with improving utilization management, the process which ensures patients are getting appropriate, evidence-based care. At first they simply digitized the process, until someone was bold enough to ask: “What’s the difference?”

“That allowed us to start to think about how we can build a better product. Instead of trying to digitize the process, we stopped and thought about the rationale for utilization management.”

In each of these examples good questions help reframe the complex ideas and make it more approachable.

Choy and Rabins both have unique strategies and insight into communicating complex ideas and audience engagement. Two Powerful Strategies To Help Leaders Explain Complicated Ideas

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About Our Experts

As a physician and executive focused on healthcare modernization and transformation, Dr. Garry Choy often finds himself speaking with investors or regulators that do not share his expertise or point of view as a physician. Dr. Choy serves as the Chief Clinical Transformation Officer at United Health and is a co-founder of several health tech companies, including andros.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician, and filmmaker, whose works include the film A Kaddish For Bernie Madoff and the book of essays Even God Had Bad Parenting Days. As a Jewish educator, Rabins helps her students prepare for their bat/bar/b’nai mitzvahs from Portland, OR.


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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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