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Simplifying complex messages: Part 3 – Use big-picture concepts when explaining complex topics

What is the Electoral College and how does it work?  What is net neutrality? Why don’t viruses respond to antibiotics?

These are just a few examples of questions some my clients, who are subject matter experts in their different fields, have been asked by reporters in long-format radio and TV interviews, and by audiences during Q&A sessions on panel discussions. They are all complex topics and, if you, as one of the speakers, are not properly prepared, the answers could go on far too long, get far too technical, and leave listeners far more confused than enlightened. However, doing this well takes practice and developing your “K.I.S.S” skills: Keep it simple, stupid.

Too often very smart subject matter experts have a tough time explaining a complex topic without sounding like they are reciting a Ph.D. thesis. They start from when the earth cooled and proceed to go into detailed explanations of every aspect of the topic.

So how can you take a complicated idea and present it in a way that is easy to follow? I offer two pieces of advice: Start thinking conceptually and, if before a live audience, use Infographics when possible.

Thinking conceptually: Start by thinking ahead of who is in your audience and their relationship to the topic. Look at the question from their perspective. Step into your audience’s shoes and jot down the questions they are probably asking in their heads. These are usually broad, big-picture questions and always go back to their real questions of Why should I care? and What’s in this for me? From there, group the questions into categories and respond to each in the simplest of terms. I always encourage keeping categories of information into no more than three categories. It helps keep the answers more concise and is easier for your audience to follow.

Infographics: Sixty-five percent of the world’s population is made up of visual learners. This means when complex topics are supported by simple graphics, they become much easier to understand. Obviously, this can only be used when the TV program is designed to show your graphics as you speak or if you are speaking to a live audience. Infographics consist of a series of simple images, graphics, and, sometimes, a few key words.

For example, let’s use the question, What is the Electoral College and how does it work? To explain what it is, first there needs to be a very short explanation on it origin and why it was created. Next, in the simplest of terms, explain the process. Use real examples that are relatable to the audience. Lastly, explain how this process impacts the American voter.

Okay, I know this little outline may still leave many of you scratching your heads. So, I highly recommend you look at a terrific example of how Electoral College expert Tara Ross explains the Electoral College using simple language and great Infographics:

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