Creating your visual aids

Presentation Advice from Albert Einstein – Part 2 – Five rules for explaining complex ideas


Explaining a complicated concept is an art form. In the first post in this series I followed a simple analogy told by Albert Einstein to introduce some broad concepts that might help us explain complicated subjects to lay audiences. It’s easy enough to do when you’re faced with like-minded peers but when you go beyond that cosy world, things can quickly go wrong.  It’s tough being an expert. When you’re trying to help people make the right decisions, you know so much of the detail that you’re as focused on the technical complexity as you are on the result that the other parties are desperate to achieve.  Whether it’s a systems change, a risk calculation, an engineering change or a strategy recommendation, there are simple things you can do to make sure you get your message across and help your audience do what they want to do with the information.

5 Simple Rules for Technical Experts and Specialists

Here are five rules you can follow to help you convey complex messages clearly. Use these and you’ll usually share your intricate idea with real impact:

1. Concentrate on the Value of the idea to the audience

Be clear concise and simple from the start in explaining the value of what you’re trying to do with the technology or the change, and look at the benefits, the risks and the probabilities of success and failure in what you’re trying to achieve.  Start with that, then unveil the detail as required by the audience. If you don’t then expect the following kind of ambush.

2. Assume no prior knowledge – ask before you start to prepare…

You have to assume no prior knowledge of the subject you’re discussing. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours elaborating the basics. Most complex concepts can be communicated using simple analogies to everyday things in the real world. The simplest way to make sure that you’ve got the level right is to ask.  Ask before the presentation, by phone, email or face to face. Ask them what level of detail they have already and what they want in the presentation. But ask.

Then keep on asking as you go.  Give them as little detail as possible, and ask provoke questions and check if they’d like more.  In my experience senior execs will ask if they want to know something, and get frustrated if they can’t see the value of what’s being presented right from the start.

There’s a very delicate line between patronizing your audience with explanations that are pitched too simply, and diving too quickly into complexities that some won’t understand.  The easiest way to get over this is to follow rules #1 & #2.  The most usual event is actually not that we patronize our audiences, but that the expert, not wanting to treat them as idiots, chooses to go the other way, and gets too complex too soon and loses them.

3. Illustrate your points with analogies, metaphor and examples

Using these 3 techniques well, allows you to explain to those who don’t understand the basics whilst still engaging those that do. It’s not only Einstein. King Solomon was supposedly the wisest man in the ancient world. That’s because he knew every fable and parable back to front. So, faced with any complex conundrum put to him by his subjects, he could call up a story to help him express his point of view. So the ‘wisdom of Solomon ‘ is as much about his ability to explain as it is about what he knew.

4. Distil, condense and break into ‘chunks’

It’s always better to keep your initial descriptions simple and allow complex technicalities to come out through questioning. If your audience thinks there’s something missing or would like to delve into intricacies, they will ask. Think Subset and Superset.

5. Use Images and Diagrams to Illustrate the key themes

A picture, the old cliché goes, is worth 1,000 words. But in science a diagram can describe things that transcend the written word. A single image can convey the simple underlying pattern hidden by words or equations, says Marcus du Sautoy in his fascinating series on ‘Diagrams that changed the world’ for the BBC (UK). Follow the link for 10 other great examples of how we can all use diagrams to help us influence the people we meet.

Draw the right picture and you can literally transform the way we see the world. But a diagram is more than just a physical representation of what we see with our eyes.  Often it requires throwing away information, focusing on what is essential. Other times it changes a scientific idea into a visual language providing a new map where the mathematics of geometry takes over and helps us to navigate the science at hand.

Copernicus Image

Copernicus understood the power of a picture. In his great opus De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium published shortly before his death in 1543, Copernicus takes 405 pages of words, numbers and equations to explain his heliocentric redefinition of the Solar System. I wonder if the Pope read all 405 pages before he sentenced him to death for Blasphemy. Probably not. The image would have been enough. Because it is the diagram that he draws at the beginning of the book that captures, in a simple, single image, his revolutionary new idea: it is the Sun that is at the centre of the Solar System and not the Earth.

The picture encapsulates some of the essential elements of the best diagrams. The concentric circles are not meant to describe the precise orbits of the planets. Copernicus knew they weren’t circles. The uniform distances between the circles aren’t meant to tell you how far the planets are from the sun. Rather this picture conveys the simple yet shocking idea that we aren’t at the centre of things.

His diagram transformed our view of our place in the universe. But some diagrams do more than just crystallize the essential underlying structure of a complex system. A diagram has the power to create a whole new visual language to navigate a complex scientific or technical idea.

Test your explanations before you use them in public

Once you’ve worked out and written down your explanation, make sure you test it on two very different people before you take it live in front of an audience. Find someone who knows your subject area reasonable well and someone who has little idea of it. Listen to their feedback, particularly the person with little expertise. If they say they get it, all well and good; if they don’t, then it’s back to the workshop for more adjustments.

Even better if this ‘testing’ is done with the members of the audience you’ll be facing.  In my experience they’re often happy that you called or emailed, even if all you get is- ‘looks OK’ or ‘don’t like that’ in response.

Other Expert Opinion

Nancy Duarte, presentation design guru on how to present to senior executives – and she should know as she’s the author of the excellent ‘Slide;ology (no typo, that really is the title of the book).  She says –

‘’…Senior executives are one of the toughest crowds you’ll face as a presenter. They’re incredibly impatient because their schedules are jam-packed — and they have to make lots of high-stakes decisions, often with little time to weigh options. So they won’t sit still for a long presentation with a big reveal at the end. They’ll just interrupt you before you finish your shtick…’’

Jan Schultink at Idea Transplant is  a guy that makes his living helping start-ups and technology firms pitch ideas to Venture Capitalists, and he thinks thus-

Some start-up pitches to venture capitalists are all about trying to explain a completely new revolutionary idea. Big bold images, stunning visuals, clever analogies, all needed to get the investor to understand and feel what you are talking about.

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