10 Tips on Communicating Complex Ideas

Photograph: Development Horizons
Photograph: Development Horizons

One of my IFPRI colleagues recently asked me if I had any course materials to share on how to communicate complex ideas to non-specialists. I was surprised to have to tell her that I did not. I don’t know if much exists that is nutrition-specific.Communicating clearly to non nutrition folks is difficult for nutrition folks because the topic is so laden with jargon and the technicalities actually matter. But that is no excuse.

So I thought I would try to help my IFPRI colleague out (and maybe a few others) with some thoughts about how to communicate complex ideas in nutrition to lay people. (And remember I am no expert).

1. Understand the complex idea. You have to really understand the complexity before you can simplify. This may seem counterintuitive, but I have found it much easier to simplify from understanding than from ignorance. As Director of IDS I often had to be a 2 minute expert on stuff I had not actually done any research on. I found it much harder to simplify without being simplistic. Even if you have not done research on the topic you are trying to communicate, be sure you understand the nuances–talk to people who are experts.

2. Get to the core issue. Don’t be distracted by second order issues. How to identify the core issue? Is it descriptive (e.g. there is more poverty in low-middle income countries than in low income countries)? Is it associative (e.g. are certain types of diets more linked with disease than others?) Or is it causal (does this intervention affect that indicator)? What is the centre of gravity of the piece of research? Work hard at finding this story. If you are lucky it will also be counterintuitive.

3. Use simple language. Instead of utilize, try use. Instead of scale up, try “getting programs to people that need them”. Instead of stunting, try kids who are short for their age. Instead of micronutrients try vitamins and minerals.

4. Never over-claim. This does not mean focus on every caveat. I would only focus on the first order caveats. For example, this program only works in this population. This indicator is only linked with this indicator under these conditions. Make sure people know where to go to have access to the full report and in that report make clear all the limitations of your report. But never claim something the research does not show.

5. Have a relentless focus on the “so what?” If a relationship is statistically significant, is it significant in terms of magnitude? If the effect of a price rise of 10% in sweetened sodas on obesity rates is statistically significant but results in a decrease in purchases of 0.25% then it is important to make this clear. If the “so what” is only of interest to other researchers, then don’t bother trying to communicate it to anyone else.

6. Understand your audience. Lay audiences are heterogeneous (and don’t use THAT term)–are they businesspeople, civil servants, doctors, media, constituents, villagers, parents or schoolkids? Talk to some of them ahead of time if possible. Have a look at their newspapers or websites to see how they think, speak, communicate.

7. Read around your subject as much as possible. Don’t just focus on your narrow sub-sub field. Try to find big picture books, views and blogs to see how your work fits in a wider context (especially for people starting out in research careers).

8. Try it out on your friends and family (if they are outside your field). I do this a lot. I started talk about the MDGs once and got only blank looks. Same with economic development. Find language that they can access and that does not bore them stiff.

9. Powerpoints? Use all the space on the slide! Use simple but memorable pictures that convey the messages that are laid over them. Never use text below 32 point. Use as few words as possible. Write the text for the audience, not for yourself! Have no more than one per minute of your presentation, preferably less.

10. Hone your communication skills. You may not believe Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour idea, but he is right: practice gets you closer to perfect. Also learn from those who do it well. Personally I continue to marvel at the communication skills of people like Paul Collier, Simon Maxwell and Jeff Sachs. You don’t have to agree with what they say, but learn from how they say it–their memorable use of images, metaphors and sticky phrases.


This post was written by Lawrence Haddad and first appeared on Development Horizons

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