Explaining complex ideas.
Leading Cities, an international nonprofit organization, is a global leader in Smart City solutions, city diplomacy, and collaboration advancing sustainability and resilient city strategies and technologies to improve the quality of life in cities around the world.
The need to explain complex ideas is not particularly new, however, it seems as if everything fits into that category now. Here are three reasons that clear and concise messaging often eludes us:
- The world is more complex. The world itself is much more complex than it was just 20 years ago. People are finding their non-binary voices, 9-to-5 jobs are almost extinct, and selecting something to watch on television requires multiple accounts and streaming devices. The work we do is also more complex as well, which makes explaining what we do more challenging too.
- How we work is always changing. From the technology involved in doing the simplest of tasks to the dispersion of colleagues far and wide, everything about how we work changes continually.
- We’re too close to it. As I’ve said thousands of times, it’s natural that we all forget what others do not know. We’re so engulfed in our work that we forget that not everyone is and often assume they know everything we do.
As always, finding the answers to the challenge of explaining complex ideas starts with asking questions. Here are five to get you started:
- Who needs to understand your work? We’re proud of what we do! That’s part of what makes us so good at our jobs! However, does everyone need to understand what we do? Most of us drive a car, be that regularly or occasionally. Do we need to know how an electric battery makes it go from zero to 60? No, but our mechanics certainly do. Who needs to know about your work in detail and who does not?
- What do they know or think? Look at communication as a journey. Your message guides them from where they are in their understanding of your work and where you want them to be. To do that, you much first know where they’re starting from. How do you determine that? Ask. Surveys, focus groups, or conversations with people in the know are the best ways to find out. Before you start summarizing season 4 episode 2 of Schitt’s Creek, make certain they’re not still in the first season.
- What is the best path? Let’s keep that journey metaphor going. Once you determine their starting point, it’s important to determine the right route. What’s the first aspect of your work they need to understand and what should wait? In the Leading Cities example above do they need to introduce the concept of city diplomacy right away? Since it’s not a widely-understood term, most likely not.
- What do you want your audience to do with the information you give them? “Knowledge is power!” they say. But power for what exactly? The answer to that is important to keep top of mind for a few reasons. First, it will help you determine what details are important to your message and what aren’t. If it’s not material to the action you want them to take, leave it out. Second, spelling out that action increases the chances they will take it. Finally, being upfront with your audience is the best way to build rapport and a long-term relationship.
- Test it out. Even the most diligent, thoughtful, and empathetic approaches to developing a message benefit from real-world testing. You may think that the new message is well-targeted, strategic, and direct, but wouldn’t it be better to know? Test it out with a few people representative of your target audience. It can’t hurt.
We started with Leading Cities. Here’s how they now speak about themselves:
Leading Cities connects cities across the globe with the innovations that solve our most pressing challenges. We do that by cultivating a global network of forward thinkers, nurturing and supporting the most promising startups, and delivering advanced research and emerging trends from global experts.
One might argue that there isn’t as much in this version, which may be true. When explaining complex ideas, it’s important to think about the quality of communication, not the quantity. The more details we introduce people to in the beginning, the less they will remember. If we provide just enough to entice them to learn more, they will.