Four keys to explaining complex ideas


Many times the idea or concept that you are trying to share with your community can be complex and hard to explain. If you go down the route of technical terms, graphs, and “industry speak”, your readers will quickly lose interest and go looking for something else. So how can you take a complicated idea and present it in a way that is easy to follow and exciting to learn?

One of my favorite podcasts is WNYC’s Radio Lab. Most episodes involve discussion around a very complex scientific idea. While listening to one of their archived episodes, I came across one where they explained some of the principles behind how they make these very “heavy” topics fun, interesting, and easy to learn.  Here’s what they have to say:

  • Use analogies and metaphors – We respond to stories instead of facts and understand complex ideas much easier when we relate it to something we already understand.  Find something normal in the world, whether it is a thing or an occurrence, that demonstrates your idea and people will grasp it much quicker.
  • Use different forms of media –  When the hosts of Radio Lab are telling their stories they often use sound effects, music and other “unconventional” elements for talk radio.  This employs different areas of the listener’s brain, helping to engage them and to bring them into the story.  With your online platform, there are so many options that allow you to do this: use video and audio, add sketches and pictures to your blog posts, essentially tell the same story across different mediums to get the most impact.
  • Make it fun – Remember how much science was fun when you were a young kid? You were boiling eggs, using food dye to color flowers, shooting rockets into the air, etc.  Then at some point in middle school, everything changes and you are stuck with memorizing a long list of boring facts.  Keep your content fun.  As the hosts of Radio Lab put it, “Be 3rd grade.”  Even the most abstract or boring topic can be made interesting if you start thinking about how you would explain and show it to a 3rd grader.
  • Be the experiment – It can often be easier for people to spend all of their time thinking and researching instead of actually going out and getting their hands dirty.  Instead of sitting around talking about scientific stuff, come up with an experiment and record it.  If there’s any way for you to actually apply your idea to the real world and see how it affects things, go and do it.  This will always be more interesting than merely explaining your theories about how things work.

If you’re communicating complicated ideas, try using these techniques to make them easier to understand. The community you’re sharing with will love it, you’ll have a lot of fun, and I guarantee that you’ll learn something cool along the way.

Tim Grahl
Tim Grahl
Tim Grahl is the author of Your First 1000 Copies and the founder of He has worked with authors for a decade to help them build their platform, connect with readers, and sell more books. He has worked 1-on-1 with over a hundred authors including Daniel Pink, Hugh Howey, Barbara Corcoran, Chip and Dan Heath, Sally Hogshead and many others. He has also launched dozens of New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post bestsellers.
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