My colleague Sunni Brown recently spoke on the topic of communicating complex information. She would know because her beat includes most of the STEM-related majors at a university. STEM, if you aren’t familiar, is science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
That’s actually one of the tips. She has several more for turning complex information into readable material.
Avoid acronyms. Yes, acronyms make it easier on the writer, but definitely not easier for the reader. Too many acronyms read like alphabet soup, which is always murky, and, therefore complex.
Ask lots of questions. Asking “how” and “why” questions will help you understand complex topics. Dig beneath the surface of what is being told to you. If you don’t understand, you need to keep asking questions. As a spokesperson, I need to know enough about the subject to be able to answer a reporter’s questions. As the person writing about a subject, I need to understand the topic to convey it simply to my readers.
Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t understand. It can be intimidating to meet with an academic who lives and breathes their area of expertise and then have to admit that you don’t understand it. Sunni has a sure-fire way to not be intimidated. “I ask the professor to explain the topic to me as if I were my 5-year-old son,” she says. “I’ve found that to be a laughable ice breaker, and the professor rarely seems put out that I need a lot of help understanding their project.”
Read your release or pitch out loud. When you read copy out loud you often stumble upon areas that need improvement. If you pause or trip over a word or phrase, Sunni says that’s a sure sign that you need to revisit that spot.
“I feel the most proud when I get media interest on a complicated topic that I’ve worked to uncomplicate.”
Ask others to read your copy. Another set of eyes is key. Says Sunni, “I’ve had someone write back highlighting a word and asking, ‘What the heck is this?’ That’s exactly why I wanted them to read it.”
When you succeed at making your content understandable – whether it’s pitching the media or writing an article – you’ll have a great win. “I feel the most proud when I get media interest on a complicated topic that I’ve worked to uncomplicate,” says Sunni. “That means I’ve done my job well.”
3 thoughts on “Communicating Complex Information”
So honored to have contributed to this post! Communicating complex information isn’t easy, but it is so important! I’m delighted others agree. Thank you, Cynthia, for sharing these tips.
And, in my small experience, the top, most imaginative researchers were also the best at explaining their work for readers to understand it.
That’s a great point Mary Ann. Thanks for sharing.