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ATD Blog

How Well Do Your Technical Teams Communicate Complex Ideas?

Friday, May 14, 2021
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Data drives business decisions. Nearly every company depends on data to better understand the market and their customers and to make better decisions.

According to research from New Vantage Partners, 85 percent of companies are trying to be data-driven, but only 37 percent of them say they’ve been successful. Why? Because it’s not really about the data. It’s about the insights.

The real challenge for companies today is determining how to draw meaning or value from all the data at their fingertips. It’s the same challenge technical presenters face when explaining complex topics to nontechnical audiences.

How well do your technical teams communicate?

In our experience, when presenting complexity, data scientists, engineers, financial analysts, and technology professionals struggle with:

  • Letting data overtake their presentations
  • Winning the attention of listeners
  • Sustaining engagement

Communicating complexity is challenging. For technical pros, doing so in an engaging and concise manner may be as easy as herding cats.

It’s one thing to present to peers. But presenting to executives or customers who don’t share your expertise is different because the more you know and the more specialized your knowledge becomes, the harder it is to present to people not in the know.

Your audience doesn’t have much appetite for more data. They face an unrelenting assault of it already. Each day people must take in five times more information than they did 25 years ago. People’s brains are overwhelmed and overburdened. But somehow you have to find a way to make them understand and get as excited about the topic as you are.

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Here are two of the most powerful tactics for presenting complexity with clarity, enthusiasm, and impact.

1) Use analogies to simplify complex ideas.

A nontechnical audience isn’t likely to know a lot about nanoparticle technology, nuclear physics, or financial derivatives. Instead, use analogies to simplify complex, data-driven concepts.

Why do analogies work? Because they give people a familiar frame of reference for understanding something new—a mental model for comparing something they don’t yet understand with something they do. Analogies, which are microstories, are how ideas catch fire, which brings me to the second tactic.

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2) Use storytelling to connect with and excite listeners.

Research shows people easily forget facts but readily recall stories. It’s a function of how our brains are wired. Stories are more compelling and evoke emotional responses. That emotional response helps listeners empathize with you in ways facts never could.

Just like analogies, stories give listeners a frame of reference they can relate to. Stories put data in context and help listeners understand why they should care about what you have to say.

Neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak urges people to “think about story as a way to influence others.” Zak discovered that our brains release oxytocin when hearing engaging narratives that adhere to the classic dramatic story arc. Oxytocin is, as Zak calls it, the moral molecule that causes people to feel empathy. Empathy prompts people to want to take action on your behalf—to buy your product or invest in your idea, for example.

Stories, then, change behavior. Story without structure is like a bird without wings. Without a dramatic narrative arc, your story never takes flight.

If there’s one takeaway from Zak’s research that shouldn’t be overlooked, it’s this: Stories need structure. Use a narrative structure when planning your presentation. It will help you distill your knowledge and focus only on what’s most meaningful to listeners and integral to their understanding.

Now, more than ever, technical professionals need the skills to be able to translate complex data into valuable insights for their business, clearly communicate those insights, and sell that value to executives and customers alike.

About the Author

As vice president of marketing, Heather Muir directs Mandel’s marketing, branding, and communications strategies in collaboration with the Executive Team. In addition, Heather leads Mandel’s public- and industry-relations activities. Prior to joining Mandel in 2010, Heather held several marketing and communications roles within the learning and training industry. Heather holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, Davis, and has completed graduate courses in business and entrepreneurship at the University of Washington.

1 Comment
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Technical team member here 👋🏼 This is super helpful! I will be applying these concepts to my next meeting with senior leaders. Thanks Heather!
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