Monday, February 24, 2020

Communicating Complex Ideas Effectively

Source:  Stanford Business School
I recently listened to a highly informative podcast episode featuring Stanford University strategic communications lecturers Matt Abrahams and Lauren Weinstein.   In the episode, they describe several effective strategies for communcating complex ideas to an audience that may not have the background or expertise in that particular domain.   Abrahams and Weinstein describe how the "curse of knowledge" gets in the way for many experts.  They have so much knowledge that they forget how challenging it can be for novices to understand a particular topic.  They assume too much prior knowledge, and they underestimate how difficult it will be for novices to follow their line of reasoning.   Weinstein offers a terrific story of how she worked with a speaker to refine a TED talk.   The topic was challenging: treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia.   Weinstein provides some rich detail on they structured the talk to communicate complicated ideas in a compelling, persuasive, easy-to-understand manner.   The lessons - starting with an engaging story, asking the audience questions to engage them, and using analogies to explain complex ideas - are applicable to many different communication situations.  Here's Weinstein explaining her coaching strategy: 

I worked with a TED speaker a while back. His talk was about a treatment that he developed for age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer's and dementia. When he first came to me, his first draft talked a lot about mitochondria and prokaryotic cells and cell membranes, which was really exciting for him and other scientists. But speaking to a lay audience, a TED audience, it was a bit too technical for them and less engaging.

So first, we had him start with a story. So he told the story of his father who had Alzheimer's disease and what it was like to see that decline. He established a personal connection. And he started sharing his content in a way that the audience could really connect to and relate with.  Then he asked the audience questions. So how many of you -- you know someone that's suffered from Alzheimer's or dementia, so again creating more connection with the audience to the topic.  And then finally, we came up with an analogy to explain something that was pretty complex. What we came up with was, in our bodies, we have trillions of cells, and each of these cells are like tiny little individual cities. And within these cities, we have factories, which are the mitochondria. And the job of these factories is to take the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat and convert it to energy.

The problem is that, often, our factories face oxidative damage from toxins and environmental stressors. And this sets the factory walls on fire. The factory walls are made of this delicate wood and easily set on fire. But that's okay because, normally, our -- we have antioxidants. We have a process for putting out the fire and rebuilding the factory walls.

But what happens as we age, for some of us, is we become less efficient at this process. And so essentially, the fires become much bigger than the firefighters in our body can handle. And so the fires become out of control. The factory goes down, and then the entire city goes down. And this is why we see the symptoms of Alzheimer's, for example.

What he developed is a supplement that's basically a fire-proof brick. So it comes in and repairs the factory walls with this fire-proof brick and makes it more resistant to damage so the factory can be saved as well as even, in some cases, rebuild itself.

It's really incredible. And my favorite part was, right after his talk, his daughter-in-law came up to me, and she said, "For four years, I had no idea what he did. This is amazing. Thank you so much."

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