How to Say The Complicated Stuff Simply (or, how to not bore or infuriate people when telling them what you do)

This is a jointly written post by Emily Kerr and Hilary King. We both work in social enterprise in different ways. Hilary is an applied anthropologist focused on alternative food systems in Mexico and the US and Emily is working with a place-based community organization in Philadelphia. As part of that, we are engaged in answering the question, “How do you build resilient, inclusive sustainable communities?” The posts in this series are related to this theme.

We write posts in response to prompts or questions that have arisen for us in our work lives. After a discussion, we try to distill our insights about those questions into these blog posts. The prompt for this week’s post was: “Why is it critical to identify and formulate knowledge into knowledge into bite-sized pieces?”

One thing we have in common is that being asked what we do -- at parties, summits, or chance encounters -- makes us feel like crawling in a hole.

It’s not because we don’t like our work. In fact, the reason it’s so hard to answer concisely is because our work is so central to our lives. It is hard to “break off” a piece of that work that feels simple enough to be accessible, but also feels true. When we change how we speak in the hopes of making our ideas interesting and understandable, we fear we’ll end up stripping off the important stuff.

But there are critical reasons to get better at making bite-sized chunks out of what we know and do. For instance:

  • The effort to share your insights brings you greater awareness of what you know, what you’re learning, and what value that has.

  • Speaking simply makes it possible for more people to engage in what you’re doing.

  • Being aware of simplicity forces a focus on the core message, rather than on details.

  • The effort to connect around your ideas necessitates empathy with your listener, which is valuable in itself.

So what to do when you need to relay something you’re doing in as simple a way as possible? These are a few touchstones we’re trying to keep in mind as we explore that question:

  • Start with something people know about and link the unfamiliar thing to that. For instance, Hilary does radical and sometimes highly theoretical work in food systems. But she tries to mention how she’s understanding things like farmers’ markets, and what happens when producers and consumers talk to each other.

  • Use story, examples, or narrative, but only after the listener indicates they want that level of detail.

  • Trust that what you are doing is valuable and interesting - you often just have to find the right words to bridge the gap.

  • [And the counterpoint to the previous bullet.] Sometimes people don’t care very much about the work you do, and that’s ok. What’s important is meeting them where they’re at and connecting there.

  • Sometimes getting your point across can get in the way of connecting. So if connecting is important to you, sometimes you need to prioritize connecting over getting your point across at a high level of complexity.

  • Synthesize the ideas and put that synthesis in the person’s lap, rather than asking them to do any connection-making. If they want more, they’ll ask for it.

  • One trick to making something feel simple to your listener is by tailoring. If what we're saying is tailored to the knowledge, needs, priorities, and experience of our listeners, then it is inevitably more accessible to them.

This is certainly an ongoing exploration for us and we’re pretty amazed by folks like Seth Godin, Danielle Laporte, and Paul Farmer that seem to honor so much deep truth with such elegant communication. We’re taking baby steps toward bite-sized communication.