One of the easiest way to torpedo complex legislation or a major project is to call it “too complicated” for legislators or the general public to comprehend. Conversely, the way to advance such bills and projects is to lay them out simply – and visually.
Simplicity does not mean dumbing down dense information. Simplifying complicated material requires hard work to master a subject, focus on key elements and attend to details. It also requires seeing a subject through the eyes of your intended audience and presenting your information in a sequence and hierarchy that makes sense to that audience.
The byproduct of simplifying the complex is often referred to as elegant simplicity. Your audience gets a full view of a complex subject that is accessible, understandable and actionable. You aren’t speaking down to your audience; you are helping your audience look up to grasp a complicated subject.
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein, which has been made into a mini-series, includes an excellent example of distilling the brilliance of a theoretical physicist into explanations that readers without a scientific background could follow. The ability to synthesize concepts like the theory of relativity is probably why Apple’s Steve Jobs, himself a master of elegant simplicity, gravitated to Isaacson to write his biography.
For most advocacy or public affairs challenges, writing a novel isn’t a practical communications option. However, visual communications is a tool that can work very well in the form of presentations, infographics and videos. How text is packaged, with subheads and links, also can make a huge difference in audience comprehension.
In my days as a state lobbyist, I was hired to negotiate and pass legislation to allow larger commercial customers to select their own electricity provider. The legislation contained many parts and opponents made hay by claiming it was “too complicated.” We came back the next session with a bill including the same provisions, but laid out more clearly and logically and a flip chart. We used the flip chart in meetings with legislators, legislative staff and the media to provide background on the Northwest electrical grid and how our legislation would work. Suddenly, a truly complex subject was made simple to understand. The legislation easily passed.
That flip chart was essentially a presentation-version of what we now call infographics – visual expressions of information presented in context and sequence.
Infographics have become quite common. Jacqueline Thomas assembled 40 infographic that made complex subjects seem much simpler. They ranged in topics from the lowdown on carbon budgets to the mysteries of feng shui. Some her examples were more impactful than others, but they all the shared the trait of tackling a tough topic and chopping it down into comprehensible pieces.
Let’s examine one example titled " Why Prolonged Sitting and Standing is Unproductive,” preparedly Anna Vital for the Workers Health & Safety Centre. This infographic illustrates the stress on the human body – from back pain to varicose veins – of sitting or standing for too long. The infographic offers a solution by suggesting standing up 16 times a day for two minutes can do more good than exercising for a half hour. It also offers practical advice on checking your work posture every 20 minutes or so, taking breaks and stretching.
There is nothing revolutionary in this infographic, but it tells a complete story, with informative illustrations. Trying to tell the same story with words would be clumsy. Telling it with video might not be as granular.
All visual communications can be effective. Choosing the right one is an important first step toward success. Include infographics in your visual communications toolbox. Just as illustrated children’s books convey magical concepts to youngsters, well-done infographics can unpack complexity for your audience at a glance. In an age of multiple impressions and shorter attention spans, a glance is all you may get for your message.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.