With so much information coming at us from so many different sources, it's no wonder most people these days take the bits they need and filter out the rest. For speakers and subject matter experts presenting complex ideas to laypeople, this poses a unique challenge. How do you simplify a complicated concept without watering down the message or oversimplifying an idea? More importantly, how do you do that without insulting your audience's intelligence?

It's not as complicated as you may think. If you're looking for ways to communicate complex ideas in clear, concise and interesting ways, here are three things to keep in mind the next time you're on stage.

Know your audience

The first and most important thing to consider when unpacking a complex idea is the audience and their familiarity with the topic. You need to understand their current level of understanding before you present the information you want them to know. So, first consider:

  • To whom are you speaking?

  • What do they know about your subject already?

  • What do they need to know?

  • And what are the gaps you need to fill in for them along the way?

Let's take the subject of blockchain, as an example. If an expert is speaking to a group of engineers about blockchain, the explanations and examples given will, no doubt, be different than if he were speaking to a gathering of general business exeutives. The engineers might be interested in blockchain technology, for instance, while the executives might be more interested in blockchain's strategic applications. The speaker would need to adjust her delivery to meet the needs of each distinct group. Same topic, different audience, different needs -- therefore, a slightly different approach.

When I am speaking about business growth to executives, my approach is different than if I am addressing a group of salespeople. And, within salespeople, enterprise sales reps have different needs than those calling on small businesses. Though the underlying concepts remain the same, if I want to make the greatest positive impact, I have to adapt my message to the unique needs to each audience. 

Each audience needs to feel as though the message is laser-focused to their needs. 

Keep it Simple

It's tempting for a subject matter expert to want to share all he knows on a topic, but overloading an audience with information is counterproductive. Instead of clarity, it can create more confusion. If you ever catch yourself saying, "You might not be able to read this from the back of the room," then you definitely have too much detail on a slide. 

How much detail does your audience really need?

Unless you're conducting a multi-day workshop, it's best to stay out of the weeds when presenting dense information. Provide enough information so the audience understands why your topic matters and how it can be applied to their situations, but don't give so much information the audience feels overwhelmed.

Keep it simple but don't oversimplify.

Neen James, author of Attention Pays, helps make complex concepts easy to digest by introducing visual contextual models. With her help, I have been able to take rather complex ideas and make them easy to digest with a simple diagram or supporting graphic. A graphical element like a pyramid or quadrant quickly gives the audience a framework that helps them to understand an otherwise complex topic. 

Use metaphors and analogies

Metaphors and analogies are effective communication tools because they give people a point of reference, by allowing them to draw on the familiar to make sense of the unfamiliar. The key to using metaphors and analogies is to offer comparisons that are relevant and easy to recognize.

So, for instance, let's say I'm trying to explain an intricate sales process that involves connecting two different groups together, I might say, "This connects buyers and sellers in the same way that Uber connects passengers and drivers." Most people will be able to better understand the concept because I gave them a familiar comparison.  

Whenever possible, draw parallels that make it easy for the audience to understand.


Complex ideas don't have to be difficult to deliver, or difficult to understand. By knowing your audience, simplifying the information you present, and drawing parallels to things that are known, you can explain difficult concepts with clarity and ease.