At some point in our lives, we all have to communicate an idea or concept to someone or some audience. Sometimes the idea is simple and the communication is simple. Sometimes the idea is complex and that raises the difficulty of communicating that idea.
Below are some elements that must be included in this communication.
Facts, pictures, videos, Conclusions, opinions, and other information provide the foundation for communicating ideas.
Pictures or visuals offer your audience an invaluable way of remembering the relationships between different variables. Consider how easy it is to picture the trajectory of a rock rolling down a hill or the ripples it creates as it splashes into a pond. Likewise, the right visual offers an easy way to see, internalize, and later recall even complicated informational trends.
When presenting complex information to an audience, “I’ll put up the data in a table, because I want them to see the details,” says Petersen. “I also put up the picture, because it makes the concept much more persistent.”
Logic is the process by which the data is turned into an idea.
Logic is valuable in its own right—after all, if your audience struggles to follow the thread of your argument, it will be tough to convince them that the argument is sound. But logic also serves as a fruitful breeding ground for more rigorous analysis.
Equations allow you to make your case with precision and accuracy. Equations capture relationships between variables mathematically so that those relationships can be mapped to actual data.
How exactly do two variables move in relation to one another? “It’s one thing to say the more debt a firm has, the higher its expected return on equity—but is that a small change or a big change?” asks Petersen.
It is rare for an equation to capture every relationship among a complicated set of variables, so good equations also make a statement about the most important relationships. They offer “a way to boil complex relationships down into a small number of important levers,” Petersen says.
“The equations are always a simplification of reality, so they never fit perfectly. The question is: Is the fit sort of close, or is it way off?”
Stories that summarize certain logic or relationships between variables are perhaps stickiest of all. “There are no cultures that I know of that don’t tell stories,” says Petersen. “It’s fundamentally part of what it means to be human.”
These stories can become memorable, almost tangible shorthand for even very abstract concepts. An elaborate story about a Coca-Cola investor swapping shares with first a Pepsi investor, then an orange juice investor, next a peanut butter investor, and finally a tractor investor, might vividly encapsulate the benefits of an otherwise nebulous concept like diversification.
When thinking up stories, do not be afraid to channel the ridiculous. “The dopier the story, the more people may groan—but years later they remember it,” says Petersen. “I will meet people 5, 10, 15 years after [presenting information] and they do not remember the specific data, but that stupid story I told them years ago has rooted itself in their brain.”
It helps also to keep in mind that stories are not just for your audience. “By telling that story to ourselves, it’s a way for us to understand the world and cement it in our memory.”
Tools like data or equations or even stories are of limited value if an audience feels they can’t push back, disagree, or ask for clarification. The more senior your audience is, says Petersen, the more important it is to actively create pauses or other spaces where misunderstandings can be voiced.
Want to know whether your audience is with you? Consider a straightforward approach. “I’ll just stop and say, ‘Somebody please ask me a question,’” he says.
And as you answer, use your body language to communicate that you genuinely welcome the opportunity to clarify. “Do you lean forward? Do you lean backward? Do you nod? Do you shake your head?” he asks.
Above all, do not assume that the brave questioner is the only one confused.
“Watch the expressions of the three people sitting behind them. Their bodies all of a sudden relax. What effectively they’re saying is: ‘I was lost but I didn’t want to ask,’ or ‘I was lost and I couldn’t articulate the question. Amanda’s question actually sorted it out. Now I understand what I don’t understand.’”