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How To Talk About Complex Topics Without Dumbing Them Down

When it comes to explaining complexity, focus on organization, not minimization.

How To Talk About Complex Topics Without Dumbing Them Down
[Photo: Flickr user Mackenzie Greer]

Infobesity: It’s an epidemic that’s affecting workplaces around the globe. We’re overloaded with more information, more data points, and more variables than we can handle. We check our phones an average of 150 times every day, and one study estimates that our attention spans have shrunk by 33% in just the last 15 years. Even worse, it’s affecting productivity: 62% of workers say that their work suffers due to information overload.

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Given how much information we all have to filter through, what happens when you have to communicate complex ideas? While some would argue that infobesity requires you to dumb down your messages with an information diet, I disagree.

The problem with trying to dumb down your messages is that complex ideas are complex for a reason. You just can’t make complexity simple; it’s a contradiction. If you do choose to try to dumb down your message, you will reduce your idea–making it smaller, lighter, and more easily dismissed. If you want to successfully explain complexity, you must be focused on organization, not minimization.

To maximize audience understanding, organize your ideas in a multidimensional format–different levels of knowledge require different levels of explanation. If you are hungry for a way to explain complex ideas to a diverse audience, my Sandwich Approach is just what you need. Here’s how it works.

1. The Sandwich Level

When you are explaining an idea to your audience, not everyone wants the same level of detail. Some–especially those with little to no technical knowledge of what you are explaining–only want the big picture. Similarly, with sandwiches some people just want to know what kind of a sandwich it is. So first, begin with the big picture: What kind of a sandwich is it? Introduce your idea in the broadest possible terms so that even those who know nothing about what you’ll say next can understand the concept.

2. The Meat Level

Next, you have the people who want more detail than just what kind of sandwich it is; they also want to know what kinds of meat are on the sandwich. So once you’ve explained your idea in big-picture terms, go down to the next level of detail. Explain some of the larger elements of your idea to draw in people who have at least have some expertise or familiarity–but don’t get too technical just yet.

3. The Condiment Level

Finally, you have your peers who are completely familiar with what you are talking about: These people want the nitty-gritty details. These people aren’t satisfied with just knowing what kind of a sandwich it is and what kinds of meat are on the sandwich; they want to know the condiments, too. The condiments are the technical details that may not be of interest to a general audience but are nonetheless essential for your expert audience.

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Keep cycling back through this process each time you introduce a new concept: Sandwich, Meat, and Condiments. By using this approach, you will keep your audience engaged by offering something for everyone.

Here’s a real-life example of the Sandwich Approach in action:

In the 1990s, I worked with a leader from the medical technology Medtronic on a presentation discussing the battery for the Pacemaker. I was tasked with trying to find a way to help him communicate the complexity of a Pacemaker battery to an audience that included the inventor of the Pacemaker battery, scientists, and physicians. I suggested that my client focus on a “reliability sandwich,” emphasizing its elegant design. At the sandwich level, he discussed how the design ensured reliability –the battery lasted 7 years! This reassured the physicians in the audience. At the meat level, he discussed some of the elegant features of the battery that made it reliable. And at the condiments level, he discussed the raw materials and chemical reactions that made everything possible, so that the scientists in the audience had something in it for them as well.

While the scientific method is about going from hypothesis, to data, to conclusion, the Sandwich Approach is all about giving your audience the conclusion first, so they know where you are going. This is the philosophy behind Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle, a strategy taught to every consultant hired by premier consulting group McKinsey & Company. A former McKinsey consultant summarized her strategy as:

  1. Start with the answer first.
  2. Group and summarize your supporting arguments.
  3. Logically order your supporting ideas.

Minto’s approach remains a staple of business communication strategy.

My Sandwich Approach is similarly top-down, giving your audience the takeaway first and then supporting it, rather than leaving your takeaway for the end. By layering your complexity, you will increase the impact of your message on a wide range of people (particularly your bosses)–and you’ll even help them feel smart in the process. And when your bosses feel smart, they will be confident in supporting your recommendations.

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About the author

Anett Grant is the CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc. and the author of the new e-book, CEO Speaking: The 6-Minute Guide. Since 1979, Executive Speaking has pioneered breakthrough approaches to helping leaders from all over the world--including leaders from 61 of the Fortune 100 companies--develop leadership presence, communicate complexity, and speak with precision and power.

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