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Five Tips to Better Explain Complexity and Avoid Long Explanations

Image of David Baize, Communicating with FINESSE
Decision makers and general audiences can understand complex situations, but they don’t have the time to review a lengthy explanation or the science background to understand the technical terms we use in the industry.

Throughout my career, I’ve been faced with having to communicate technical information to the public, the press, board members, and elected officials. Of all the challenges in the regulatory world, I often found this task to be one of the most difficult.

To communicate the status of a complex situation involving scientific concepts and technical data, I would often prepare a briefing paper. I tried to keep it to one page with the goal of making the science easy to understand. This briefing paper could then be used to provide the necessary information to decision makers and others.

The ability to craft such a brief was developed through some painful, but valuable, experiences. The first, and probably most important concept, is not to communicate as you would with a technical peer. If your audience is composed of people who aren’t in the sciences, you must have this at the forefront of your mind when developing the material to be provided. This is not because your intended audience is not intelligent enough to understand complex issues—they just don’t speak your language.

If you work in a regulatory agency, academia, or environmental consulting, you likely communicate in acronyms, techno-speak, and equations. When you want to convince a technical peer, you do a calculation, create a chart or graph, and hit them with more and more data until you make your case. If you’ve ever presented a paper at a technical conference, this is what you did to convince the audience of technical peers, and it worked great. But with a general audience, this can be perceived as a negative, or even worse, an attempt to mislead.

I learned this lesson first-hand. After a public meeting, where I had presented many graphs and charts (of which I was quite proud), a community member approached me to say she still didn’t understand. So, I went through the graphs with her again, only to have her accuse me of showing the graphs to purposely confuse her and the audience! Now I was the one who was confused (and a little heartbroken), as the purpose of presenting all the graphs and charts was to help the community understand the situation. Instead, I was making it worse.

This was a paradigm shift for me, but in thinking about it later, it became clear. I had spent many years, both in college and professionally, looking at data. Reading lots of data in a chart or graph was second nature. If you don’t work in the sciences, how often do you look at graphs and charts? Certainly, a simple, well-prepared graph may help explain a complex issue, but you must ensure it is readable and understandable by everyone. Include in your explanation what each axis represents and how to understand the units on the axis so the meaning of the graph is clear.

An even more difficult task is explaining risk. Risk is inherent in many of our daily activities but trying to quantify risk or put it in terms relative to other activities is a challenge. For example, how do you explain the risk of drinking common contaminants found in water? I can tell you how not to explain this to a general audience: “Drinking this chemical has a ten-to-the-minus-six risk based on drinking two liters of water per day over a span of 30 years for an adult weighing 70 kilograms”. This is common language in the risk calculation world, but it wouldn’t mean much to a general audience. A better explanation might be something like this: “That means there’s an additional one-in-a-million chance of developing cancer.” However, even this often is not satisfactory, and, if appropriate, most audiences would prefer to simply know if the water is “safe” or “unsafe” to drink.

Even explaining chemical concentrations is a challenge. Let’s say the chemical you’re discussing has a maximum contaminant level established by EPA at 5 parts per billion. Again, here’s what not to say: “Parts per billion (ppb) is the number of units of mass of a contaminant per 1000 million units of total mass. Also, it can be expressed as µg/L or micrograms per liter.” You’ve probably confused (and lost) your general audience. A better explanation would be, “This is like one drop in a billion drops, or like one drop in a swimming pool.” This gives the audience a reference they’re familiar with and puts the concentrations of the chemical in perspective.

In summary, decision makers and general audiences can understand complex situations, but they don’t have the time to review a lengthy explanation or the science background to understand the technical terms we use in the industry.

My suggestions are to: a) understand the audience you are communicating with, b) keep the explanation as brief as possible, c) use graphs and charts where it will help clarify, but be sure the explanation and meaning are clear, d) use common terminology instead of techno-speak, and e) put potentially confusing concepts into simpler terms and use examples the audience will be familiar with and can understand.

I hope this helps you communicate with decision makers more effectively.


During his career at the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control (SC DHEC), David Baize served in various roles, including Chief of the Bureau of Water. He currently serves as the Executive Director of the SC Water Associations (SCAWWA/WEASC), South Carolina's leading advocate for water resources consisting of 3000 individual members and 80 water & wastewater utilities.

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