Careers advice

Communicating complex ideas at work: a guide

Time to boil things down.

You’ve probably lost count of the times you’ve read about the importance of communication in the workplace. Great communication is a part of every well functioning business, and high achieving professional.

While communicating is important at all times, the true test of a great communicator is when you need to convey a complicated concept to a group who are unfamiliar with the subject matter.

There are many instances in which this might happen. For example, an accountant who needs to communicate company finances to a senior leadership team drawn from across the business, who don’t all speak fluent finance. Alternatively, you might be a social media marketer who needs to translate site-specific performance metrics into a format that can be digested by someone who’s never engaged with these platforms.

So, what are tricks of the trade?

How to make effective explanations

1. Lose the jargon

Whether you’re a machine operator or a magician, every profession comes with its own fair share of specific jargon. While these terms might make perfect sense to those in your immediate department, and make communication easier between you as a team, they will have the opposite effect when it comes to conveying these ideas to the wider business.

One thing to be particularly mindful of is that jargon can become so ingrained in your day-to-day that you might not even realise you’re using it in presentations.

Of course, if you’re giving an important presentation at work, the most important tip is to practise it thoroughly ahead of time. As part of this, take time to really scrutinise the terms you’re using, and ensure they’ll be easy for everyone to follow.

Go through your speech carefully to make sure it's jargon free.

2. Know your audience

This is another piece of advice that applies to all good communication, but it’s particularly important when explaining complicated ideas at work. Knowing your audience is key not only to choosing the terminology you use, but also the main focus of the information you put across.

When you’re explaining something that’s hard to grasp, the last thing you want to do is batter the listener’s brains with unnecessary details. While you think it might be interesting or fun to explore more peripheral ideas around the main point, it will actually make it harder for the audience to hone in on what it is you want them to understand. For example, let’s say you’re developing an app which involves taking payments electronically, and you’re wanting to ensure that all the legal boxes are ticked. If you were presenting this app to the legal department for consultation, you wouldn’t also want to talk about the software behind the product, unless it was intimately related to your main point.

3. Use examples

Theoretical concepts are generally a lot harder to get your head around than practical examples. Where at all possible, try to make the idea more tangible by using examples that would apply to the day-to-day jobs of the people you’re addressing.

For example, if you’re pitching a new workflow tool to the management team, the best thing you can do is to pull the tool up on a shared screen and demonstrate its functionality. As well as quoting facts and stats about the time it could save them, show them how easy the tool is to use, and how it can make their day-to-day life easier.

4. Use images

It might be a cliche to say that a picture paints a thousand words, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Diagrams, graphs and even animations can take mind bending ideas and make them seem a whole lot less daunting to an unfamiliar audience.

Visuals are your friend when it comes to making the complex straight forward.

5. Leave plenty for time for questions

Even if you’ve done everything you could think of to make the talk as easy to digest as possible, there’s still a good chance that not everything will have fallen into place for the audience.

As such, it’s key that you give the audience plenty of time to ask the questions they need to help them cement the knowledge in their minds. As well as answering to the best of your ability, it’s a good idea to take a note of frequently asked questions. These are generally a good indicator of where your talk needs workshopping for future presentations.

6. Don’t talk down to people

While you’ll be doing your best to put the information across in a way that people can easily digest, you don’t want to go so far that you’re actually patronising your audience. For example, you want to avoid calling out the fact that you’re worried about people following you by using sentences like “I know this might be hard to understand, so bear with me and I’ll try to explain.”