For complex topics, give context first; Issue #437 April 16 2019

How do you present a complex topic that may be hard for the audience to understand? Don’t follow two common pieces of advice. Don’t try to make your topic simple, as some would advise. Complex and simple are opposites. If you have a complex topic, it will always be complex, it can’t be simple. And don’t follow the advice to “dumb it down” for your audience. I think it is very disrespectful to think of your audience as stupid.

I think complex topics can be made clear. That is what I believe our objective as presenters should be, to make our message clear to the audience. If you have a complex topic, giving the audience context first helps the complex become clear. Context gives the audience the connections between a small number of areas so when you show the details in each area they can better relate how the details fit into the overall picture.

If you have a complex diagram or image, don’t display the entire visual and try to wave a laser pointer around while explaining the different parts. It will confuse the audience. Instead, start with a higher level visual to give them context. Perhaps it is a higher level view of the three overall steps in the diagram or a higher level view of the four sections of the production facility image. Once the audience has context, you can then move to a series of slides to explain the details of each of the high level steps or sections.

With diagrams or images, you can either create a new high level visual, or you can use the complex visual with overlays to distinguish the different sections. The overlays can be semi-transparent shapes (usually rectangles) that have a border and serve to indicate the groups within the underlying detailed visual.

To show you what this can look like, I created a video of one way to present a somewhat complex order placement and approval process. In the video below I have used the PowerPoint transition effect called Morph that allows you to create what appears to be a panning across a larger visual (you can create Morph transitions in Office 365, PowerPoint 2019, PowerPoint Online, and PowerPoint iOS & Android). I think Morph can enhance the message but if you don’t have this feature, the breaking up of the process into sections is still very effective without any transition effects.

A list of items can also be considered complex. If you have a long list of items, don’t use slide after slide with the word “(continued)” in the title. This assumes the viewer can remember everything on the previous slides, which they can’t. Start with a slide that lists the three or four areas or groups of items. Then each subsequent slide can list just the items in one group.

Just because you have to present complex topics does not mean you can’t make them clear to the audience. Give the audience context first so they can clearly understand each part of the complex topic as you explain the details.

By Dave Paradi

Dave Paradi has over twenty-two years of experience delivering customized training workshops to help business professionals improve their presentations. He has written ten books and over 600 articles on the topic of effective presentations and his ideas have appeared in publications around the world. His focus is on helping corporate professionals visually communicate the messages in their data so they don't overwhelm and confuse executives. Dave is one of fewer than ten people in North America recognized by Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the Excel, PowerPoint, and Teams communities. His articles and videos on virtual presenting have been viewed over 4.8 million times and liked over 17,000 times on YouTube.