Head-Scratching, or Head-Nodding? 5 Tips for Communicating the Complex


Baby scratch her headThe other day, my five-year-old twins were explaining a playground game to me. They were confident, they were patient with me, and they went into great detail, but there was no question that the rules of the game were far too complex for me – an outsider – to grasp. I felt that given enough time, I probably could have understood, but the moment passed and we all moved on to other things. I know they were probably disappointed in my slow uptake, but thankfully they’ve forgiven me.

This put me in mind of a similar story that a philanthropist shared recently. His foundation has invested a great deal of money and time in a comprehensive new initiative, but when he carries the news of their work into the community, he’s mostly left with head scratching or blank stares. He’s often disappointed in their slow uptake.

In situations like these, where there’s a complex idea that needs explaining, simplicity is the key. Whether it’s a convoluted legislative environment, or a comprehensive grantmaking approach, or a highly sophisticated model for addressing community issues, you’ll turn more head scratching into heads nodding in agreement if you follow these simple rules.

  1. Lead with the outcome, not the process. If people in your audience know where you’re trying to go and want to be in that place as well, they’re more likely to stick with you as you explain it. Tell what you want to accomplish, then how you’ll get there.
  1. Break it down. If there’s a way to break your explanation into 3-5 general steps to success, the overall concept will be more understandable and memorable for your audience. Less than three, and it may sound too oversimplified. More than five, and you’ve lost them.
  1. Leave most of it for later. When you’ve invested hours of your life and a considerable amount of your brain power into creating something that is necessarily complex, every detail can seem important. They are, but not all at once. Focus on the big, overarching points that those details add up to, but leave most of them out.
  1. See yourself in the audience. Imagine you’re one of the members of your audience. What’s in this program or initiative for you? Why should you care? What are the points you’ll likely remember tomorrow when you’re recounting this presentation to a colleague? Tailor your messages accordingly to provide listeners the points that will resonate most.
  1. Turn fact into fiction. Sandwich your factual presentation with a fictitious one. Make up a person who’s life is one way before your intervention, and different after. What’s different? Why? How did your work make that happen? Stories like these can be powerful not only in helping listeners understand what you’re hoping to accomplish, but also in building a listener’s emotional response to complement her intellectual one.

Try incorporating these five tips into your next presentation on a complex topic, and see if you don’t see more heads nodding in agreement. Better yet, see if you don’t find more folks asking thoughtful questions, requesting more information, and becoming more engaged in your success.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and advisor. Read more about how to effectively communicate your foundation’s results by reading “The Power of A Communications Plan: Why You Need One Now and How To Get It Rolling”.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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