August 21, 2012

The Value of Conveying Complex Ideas in Simple Terms

Complex problems may require complex solutions. But no matter how complicated the issue, nonprofit consultants need to find a way to discuss both the problems and the solutions in simple, concise language. Good communication means making sure your message is accurately received, not just that you sent it.

It’s far too easy to hide behind jargon or consultant-speak or to expound on management theories that clients aren’t familiar with. We use jargon because it’s easy. It’s a shortcut. It’s much harder to explain something in a way you know people will understand—not just the words but also their implications—and to do it using as few words as possible. If that’s too much of a challenge, it might be a sign you don’t fully grasp the issue yourself.

Albert Einstein once said that if you can't explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Speaking plainly applies to every aspect of your communication, from a two-line e-mail to a strategic plan. I now create one-page business plans for nonprofits rather than the 20- to 30-page strategic plans I used to create. Forcing a nonprofit to think precisely and consistently and to articulate a strategy in one page is hard work. However, the clarity, transparency, and accountability it produces are exciting. It is amazing how much fuzzy thinking gets exposed and discarded.

Our responsibilities in communication are only getting harder. Our interactions across cultures are growing. The number of relationships we have with other nonprofits and businesses is increasing. The complexity of our missions is expanding.

Consultants as well as nonprofit executives must work together to give highest priority to assuring that we all speak plainly, accurately, and consistently and are fully understood.

What steps have you taken to make your communication clearer and more concise? Do you still have trouble explaining a complex idea in simple terms?