Simple Stories in a Complex Content World


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These words--"It's quite simple. We are using Bayesian probability theory to solve oncology disease states using genetic immunotherapy."--began a recent presentation for a biotech startup. I was instantly confused. Flunking Algebra I and Algebra II had not prepared me for the potent blend of math and science that followed. I'm not a mathematician or scientist, but I do consider myself well-read and intelligent enough to grasp new concepts in a short amount of time. But the combination of new information and unfamiliar descriptions were flying over my head at a steady clip.

We've all been confused while trying to understand brand new data. The problem of knowledge transfer becomes harder to deal with in our fast-paced world. Not only are we supposed to grasp new concepts, but we are prodded to do so at an increasing rate of speed. Learn the new sales material over lunch, educate customers on our new product in a 30-second spot, and keep up with our competitors by reading the news on our phone during dinner.

All of these factors have forced us to condense more complex content into easier to consume forms. The world is not getting more complex, but with our growing access to instant data, we are hyperconnected to a constant flow of new concepts. The great width and depth of our internet-soaked world has exposed us to more complex concepts than we can process. As marketers, communicators, educators, and ambassadors, how are we supposed to keep up with the pace and still effectively communicate our messages?

Simplify-The first step to clearly communicating complex ideas is to cut out the insider lingo and use words, concepts, and ideas your audience will relate with. Apple has been a leader in cutting out technical descriptions and creating effective methods to tell the story to a nontechnical audience. For example, the iPhone 6 Plus display is 401 pixels-per-inch with a 2048x1536 display containing 2,073,600 pixels viewed at 25 cm, but you know it as a retina display. Apple created a term that had a technical meaning but communicated an effective story that anyone can understand. Using agreed upon language to talk with others solves a host of problems. Within the first 5 minutes of that biotech pitch, I started to interrupt and ask what words meant. After having a few of the medical and mathematical terms defined, I was able to understand the broader concepts of the idea. Simplify your hard-to-understand story by using or creating mutually agreed upon language.

Stories tell stories-There is a current rash of startup companies that describe themselves as Twitter for X, the Airbnb of Y, or the YouTube for Z. The easiest way to describe complex business plans is to tell the story of another successful company and relate it to a unique product or service. This is why keynote speakers use case studies to convey ideas, pastors use illustrations for their sermons, and teachers use examples to explain life lessons. We finally agreed on a general directing his troops to describe how cells attack cancer in the body and to help understand the medical pitch. Until I had that story, I was clueless as to who the players were and how the overall process worked. Find a simple story that helps your customers understand who you are and what your product or service does, and then tell it.

Understand-You must know your audience to be fully understood. You can use the right language and tell a great story, but if you don't understand your audience, you can fall flat on your face. The company Buffer has a chief happiness officer (whose Twitter handle is
@CaroKopp) who focuses on listening to customers and answering their questions on social media. Instant and open lines of communication have helped the company truly understand what customers want and how to serve them. How are you seeking to truly understand your audience, and what they are saying about you and your company?

After simplifying the language, using a good story, and understanding the audience, I finally came to comprehend how math can help save lives. And whether you are pitching a biotech startup, selling a new product, or communicating a new idea to others-if you use these concepts, you will see results. Now, if only I could go back in time and share these concepts with my high school algebra teacher.