The Best Way to Break Down Complex Ideas at Work
You’re sitting in a conference room with all the big bosses. They’re meeting to discuss the annual budget, and it’s your job to pitch them your case for more money for your team.
While you’re quite confident everyone has a vague idea what your department does, you’re not nearly as confident that everyone sees the importance of what you do or the way you do it.
Why? Well, what you do is pretty specific. Maybe so much so that your own friends don’t quite get it.
But even if that’s the case, you’re going to have to learn how to get people on board with your work when you’re looking for a cut of the company’s budget, meeting with someone from a completely different field, or pitching an idea to a client.
Here’s how to do that:
1. Get to Know Your Audience
Herein lies a true “trick of the trade:” Presenting information is never about the presenter—it’s always about the audience.
So, rule number one? Get to know who they are: What’s most important to them? What motivates them? What’s their background? How do they prefer to communicate? What “language” do they tend to use?
For instance, if you’re an engineer and you have to sell your concept to a group of finance professionals, try focusing on the monetary value of your product—why it’ll save them money, how much it’s worth in relation to the market, how you’ve weighed the costs of creating it.
By understanding who the person (or people) you’re speaking to is, you’re able to use their common knowledge or experience to decide how best to explain your idea.
Of course, this is easy when you have time to prepare for a meeting, but what if you’re getting to know someone for the first time, like at a networking event?
Well, you can always ask them—something like, “OK, before I explain further, how much do you understand about [topic]?”
Then, after locking down your audience, you should do the following…
2. Choose the “One Thing” They Should Understand
One famous attempt to convey very complex information was a military briefing on Afghanistan in 2010. A general was shown a diagram explaining the American military strategy, but, as the New York Times says in an article about the incident, he found that it looked more “like a bowl of spaghetti.”
“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” was the general’s response to deciphering this information.
Like this funny real-life example suggests, if something is too complicated—a.k.a., trying to tackle too much at once—people are most likely to be confused by it, or worse, forget about it.
So, how do we even the odds to give you a better chance at making complex information memorable, and give your audience a better chance at processing said information?
It comes down to asking yourself these two questions:
- If my audience will only remember one thing about my explanation, what is that “one thing?”
- And, why should my audience care about this “one thing?”
This instantly creates focus for you to pick and choose the information you deliver (and how you deliver it), and makes it more likely your audience will get what you’re trying to say.
3. Give Context and Use Examples
You’ve done your research, you know the players, and you know what makes them tick. You have tremendous clarity on what the “one thing” you want the team to remember is. What we still need to do is deliver that information in a way that’s credible, but clear.
Simply saying, “I had this new idea and it will save us time and effort and I need X budget to get it done” might get people’s attention, but there are still going to be (lots of) questions.
This is where context can be your best friend. The way you frame your information matters—the language, terms, and examples you choose to use will have a huge impact on what your audience remembers and understands.
So, paint a verbal picture. For example, rather than using the example above, you might say something like, “What’s one thing no one likes doing? Time and expense reporting. We have 50 team members doing it, and it takes an average of one hour per week, per person. That’s 50 hours we could be spending on more important projects. We can reduce that time wasted by 75% if we allocate some of our budget to hiring someone to do this for us.”
By sharing that information, you make the problem tangible, and the solution appealing.
4. Watch Your Language
While using long, technical words might seem impressive, it rarely helps anyone understand what’s being said.
So, opt for using simple, everyday language. Along those same lines, avoid any acronyms, jargon, or highly-niche phrases. When it’s impossible to avoid, make sure to define any complex terms.
Breaking down complex ideas can be super challenging, especially if you’re working with someone who has zero context about your work. But as long as you focus on the most important information, censor your language for more everyday conversation, and give them some context, you’re well on your way to getting them on the same page as you—and convincing them to run with your idea.