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The Art of Communicating Complexity

Editor's Note: Take a look at our featured best practice, Consulting Storytelling Guide (74-slide PowerPoint presentation). Curated by former McKinsey Consultants Unleash the Power of Storytelling in Consulting: A Step-by-Step Guide Are you ready to captivate your clients, inspire your team, and deliver compelling presentations? Introducing our comprehensive consulting storytelling step-by-step guide, a [read more]

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Editor’s Note:  The author, Davina Stanley, is a Corporate Communications expert with several decades of experience from McKinsey.  Her firm is also an author on Flevy, specializing in business frameworks on various communications topics.  You can view their documents here.  This article is an except from her firm’s free ebook: Three Tips to Help Technical Experts Get an Edge When Communicating Complex Information

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Have you ever thought that because you are a technical expert, communicating will be a struggle? Perhaps you
think communicating is for other people: people who are extraverted, charismatic and find it easy to say the right thing? Somehow there are people who seem to have others “eating out of their hands” with little effort.

So, what if we told you that your logical abilities can work to your advantage in the vast bulk of business communication?

Most business communication relies on a deep understanding of the facts and the ability to explain how those facts are logically relevant to a particular update or decision.

Decision makers are impressed by the ability to communicate complex material with clarity, which requires rigorous understanding of the logical connections between your ideas.

In short: you don’t have to be born a good communicator. Your abilities with logic and synthesis combined with your technical expertise can work to your advantage when learning how to generate powerful and relevant insights from complex material.

To achieve this, however, there are three steps that you must take.

  1. Focus on what your audience needs, instead of your desire to describe your analytical process
  2. Discuss what your data means, rather than what your data ‘is’
  3. Allow enough time to synthesise your main points into a logically tight storyline, rather than perfecting your analysis until the last minute

Once you have done this, you have laid the foundation for becoming a great communicator. Let’s talk about each of these points in more detail.

Tip 1. Focus on what your audience needs, instead of your desire to describe your analytical process. 

One of the main complaints we hear from senior leaders when discussing complex pieces of communication, such as business cases, updates or board papers, is that the authors appear compelled to describe their problem solving journey before getting to the ‘so what’.

In our experience, this can be motivated by a few things: people thinking as they write, which takes them back to their working journey, or a belief that providing all of the background before getting to the main point will help the audience appreciate it when they finally get there.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true. Without a frame of reference
for the information that is being communicated, the audience quickly switches off. At first they might try to puzzle their way
into understanding why they need to read the early sections, but they typically stop or at best scan the rest out of confusion or boredom. Either way, they often miss the main point or points that you really want to make.

Instead, we would encourage you to try the opposite approach. Introduce your main points very early in your paper – after a very short introduction – so that your audience can see where you want to take them.

In providing your main point and the top level supporting points up front you are more likely to engage your audience by making them curious. This applies equally with potentially provocative ideas and more routine updates.

If you are concerned about turning them off by being too bold, you can use tonal tactics to prepare them, perhaps by introducing the ideas as “unexpected” or “surprising” to set the scene.

Either way, you will have piqued their interest rather than turning them off. This simple and ‘surprising’ example here illustrates what you should not do.


Aside of the content being unprofessional, Ross isn’t even going to open this email. Look at the subject heading…

Instead, look at the way this email (that still should not be sent, but illustrates my point about the importance of getting to your main point quickly) is organised:


Now that’s clear. Inappropriate, but clear. So, what is going on structurally?

Amy has used her main point as the subject line to get Ross’s attention and then provided just enough context in her first sentence so that he can make sense of the email. She has also made just one clear point that is mirrored in the subject line and supported by the points which are stepped out in parallel form (with the same subject, and ordering the words using the same linguistic pattern). There is no question that Ross is now completely clear about why Amy has ‘had enough’.

Now, obviously, we do not recommend sending this specific email. But, hopefully it is simple and provocative enough to make the point. You are at a great advantage when you organise your ideas so that your audience can grasp them quickly:  within 30 seconds is possible even for quite large business documents.

This leads to our next point. Make sure you have one: don’t just deliver the data. Even if your audience is interested in the data, most of the time they will be more interested in what it means to them.

To gain more insights on tips 2 and 3, you can download our free ebook titled Three Tips to Help Technical Experts Get an Edge When Communicating Complex Information here.

37-page PDF document
Clarity is critical in business communication of all kinds, yet difficult to achieve. This pack outlines five clear steps that will enable you to clarify your thinking for both yourself and your audience while preparing any kind of communication, from emails through to board papers, complex [read more]

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About Davina Stanley

Davina Stanley is Co-Founder and Managing Director of neosi. Team neosi consists of a small group of communication specialists who have 40 years’ experience in helping clients clarify their thinking before they communicate. The team, originally trained at McKinsey & Company, offers a range of online solutions, including software and eCourses, while also serving clients in Australia, Asia Pacific and elsewhere. They have published a number of documents on Flevy related to the topics of corporate communication, structured thinking, and communication clarity.


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