telling a complex story

Turning Complexity into Clarity

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

The right infographic can help make complex ideas clear.

Turning complexity into clarity is a critical challenge for today's communicators. Visual tools can help. A lot.

Telling your audience a subject is complex is a big turn-off. Showing people the essence of a complex subject is something they will appreciate. It is a proven way to earn trust, even from doubters.

The secret to decoding "complexity" is to identify what makes it seem complex. A Tektronix subsidiary that made circuit boards found itself in political hot water after neighbors went to city hall to oppose what should have been a routine air permit renewal. A few visits to neighbors revealed the concern was rooted over what went on inside the company's austere, windowless building that generated so much air pollution.

Company officials explained how the plant's manufacturing process worked. When we were called in to help, we had a simpler idea – an open house. We wanted people to see there was nothing menacing inside the manufacturing facility. We also wanted people to see – as soon as they walked through the front door – how circuit boards power products they use everyday.

The "complexity" was eliminated with visitors, with a warm cookie in hand, strolling by the circuit board display and wandering around in the factory. The issue disappeared instantly and the subsidiary got a renewed air permit.

It is harder to clarify "complexity" when you are still in the design stage of a project. There is no place to hold an open house. That's where an infographic or a SlideShare presentation come in handy.

Saying a proposed project is safe may not be as effective as showing project safety features. An infographic is a great tool to show how a process works and the key safety features at each critical point. An illustration can be easy and logical to follow. It can use visual symbols that are familiar to the eye. An interactive illustration can include links to video clips showing safety features in operation at an existing facility.

A SlideShare presentation or flip chart can enable a viewer to walk through a "complex" process that has been sliced into 10-12 digestible, comprehensible and visually powerful slides. Creating such presentations sends the message that your views are capable of understanding a project's "complexity." Well-conceived slides that show key details and their significance contribute to understanding and earn respect for your overall message.

Increasing numbers of products and projects involve complex technologies, medical advances or emerging science. Many communicators, who graduated with liberal arts degrees and shunned the science building like the plague, may seem ill-prepared to talk about them. Not so.

Not knowing about technical subjects makes it easier – and necessary – to ask the basic questions, which are the questions most likely on the minds of the target audience of the communications.

Turning "complexity" into clarity isn't a test of how much you know, but rather how well you can synthesize what you know into something that people can read, view or experience and understand.

Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling

Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling.jpg

It takes more than facts to tell a complex public affairs story. It takes an insatiable curiosity to find the facts that make the story compelling – and believable.Curiosity is one of the most useful tools for writing in the public affairs space. The more you know, the better you can be at explaining a complex subject with an engaging story.

Malcolm Gladwell, who has been called the "eclectic detective," is an excellent example of a storyteller with an immense, far-reaching curiosity. Many of his stories could easily qualify as textbook examples of effective public affairs writing.

A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, Gladwell has turned his unquenchable appetite for answers into an amazing aggregation of information.

In his 2009 compilation of stories titled, "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell recounts the fall of Enron, with the counter-intuitive conclusion that it succeeded for as long as it did because no one took time to examine carefully its public financial data. If people had, Gladwell concludes, they would have seen Enron's numbers didn't add up. But few did, which made it easier later for Enron-bashers to blame its executives for deceiving the public. Their deceit, it turns out, was hidden in the light of day. 

Another story talks about the problem with pictures, such as mammograms and satellite photos. Still another probes how The Pill went off the rail with the Catholic Church, but if explained differently as a medical life-saver for women it might have had a different outcome.

Most of the 19 resurrected New Yorker articles by Gladwell dealt with subjects that people facing public affairs challenges would find familiar. What would be unfamiliar is how Gladwell wove together background information and related data from tangential sources to produce a compelling story, a page-turner. 

Many "experts," including us, urge more storytelling in public affairs campaigns. What we fail to mention is the importance of diligent research to find the facts that will make a story compelling – and believable.

Facts are good, but often not enough to persuade people. You need to make the facts come alive so the target audience for the story can relate to them and ultimately believe them. That's where indefatigable homework plays a huge role. You often need to know more than your own stuff to make your point. There is no greater asset in this quest than an insatiable curiosity.

A profile of Gladwell described him as a "writer of many gifts," with a "nose for the untold back story that will have readers repeatedly muttering, 'Gee, that's interesting!'" That, in a nutshell, is the holy grail of writing in the public affairs space. 

The Gladwell profile added, "He avoids shopworn topics, easy moralization and conventional wisdom, encouraging his readers to think again and think different." That's hard to do if you haven't done it yourself as the writer.

Gladwell has his flaws. Lack of curiosity isn't one of them.

Making Something Real by Storytelling

If an author can turn a summer 90 years ago into a page-turner, issue managers can follow suit with storytelling to make their messages compelling for contemporary audiences. 

If an author can turn a summer 90 years ago into a page-turner, issue managers can follow suit with storytelling to make their messages compelling for contemporary audiences. 

Vacations offer a chance to relax and read books. They also offer a reminder of writing styles designed to entertain and inform.

Bill Bryson, who has authored books as disparate as Shakespeare andAfrican Diary, writes in a style that invites readers to share whatever journey he takes them on. It is a style that blends meticulous research, storytelling and bright writing. He can write about anything because he can write.

The lesson here is that what sells is not how much you know, but how much you convey in ways that readers will consumer.

I just devoured Bryson'sOne Summer in America, the rollicking exploration of 1927 when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Babe Ruth swatted 60 home runs, the modern musical and television were born and silent movies succumbed to talkies. What could have been a dull recitation of an exciting period became an entrancing, hard-to-put-down romp through an age when Americans fretted about Italian extremists and one man perfected the art of legal electrocution.

Bryson didn't use glimmering language. He leveraged the power of interesting details to tell a story, adding a dash of humor. It is a spellbinding combination.

It is worth noting Bryon's milieu is non-fiction. He is the author of A History of Nearly Everything, which he truncated to A Short History of Nearly Everything andA Really Short History of Nearly Everything for the attention-deficit crowd. He isn't making stuff up. He is making a bunch of facts comprehensible and enticing.

The skills Bryon most manifests are 1) curiosity, 2) the ability to make connections and 3) the skill to weave what he discovers into a story.

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to," Bryson writes in the opening line of his hysterical autobiography, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid." He describes a "curious time" in the 1950s in America when no one knew that DDT, cigarettes and nuclear fallout weren't good for you.

His subject matter is irrelevant to his expertise. He can make a summer seem like a dream, a continent appear irresistible and his own Midwest childhood a magical experience. What he can do best of all is communicate.

His writing talent should be a talisman for issue managers trying to communicate complex and controversial material. Command of subject, the ability to zero in on interesting and cogent content and the skill to wrap it all in a satisfying sandwich of storytelling can make a huge difference in connecting with an audience.