How to Simplify a Complex Topic for Non-Experts

Your information is useless if not understood by its intended audience.

Every writer knows this. But making it happen can be tricky. When you possess deep knowledge of a topic, it can be challenging to simplify what you know for a general audience while preserving the integrity of the subject matter. It takes particular skill to communicate complex or high-volume information in a way anyone can understand and feel engaged. Whether you’re a researcher who needs to share your findings with the masses, an organization that needs to craft a narrative around its data, an employer who needs to explain a process to workers, or anyone with knowledge who wants to share it, in order for your information to be valuable, it must be understood.

Compile relevant information

First, gather up all the information you need to share, leaving out anything that isn’t essential. When you have a vast understanding or strong interest in a topic—if it’s your “thing”—it can be tempting to share every minute detail about it. But it’s important to remember that your audience may not need (or want) to know all the nitty-gritty details. In fact, too much detail can muddle your message and overwhelm your audience. So consider what is most important and be smart about what to include and what to omit.

Break it down

Once you’ve compiled all of your information, distill it down to its smallest parts. What are the main components of what you’re sharing? What are the smaller pieces that support those main ideas? Ask questions from the perspective of a layperson, and look for holes that could confuse a non-expert.

Organize the information

You have to assume your audience has no knowledge of your topic, so the organization of the content should be based on clarity. You could start with the most basic information and introduce layers of complexity as you proceed. Or, you could organize the content into steps or action items that are completed in a specific order. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes and pretend you’re new to this topic, or think back to when you first learned about it, and organize it to best facilitate comprehension.

Use clear language

Using clear, succinct language is the most significant thing you can do to help others learn about your topic. Avoid jargon, industry terminology and “insider” phrasing. Replace big words with shorter, simpler words. Use short sentences. When the purpose of your content is to inform, don’t fall into the trap of trying to impress your audience with your knowledge by using complicated verbiage or complex sentence structure. Keep it simple.

In addition to clear language, use analogies and examples that your audience is already familiar with. Draw parallels between your information and simpler or commonly understood concepts.

Use formatting to your advantage

When you’re trying to optimize comprehension, formatting is your friend. While you don’t want to over-format and clutter things up with too many graphics, fonts or colors, you do want to use formatting that enhances clarity. Here are a few ways you can achieve this:

  • Incorporate headings that follow a logical structure.
  • Present information in brief numbered or bulleted lists.
  • Use different fonts and colors judiciously to highlight, emphasize and differentiate pieces of information. Keep it easy on the eye so as not to overwhelm readers.
  • Insert clear visuals (such as images, maps, graphs or tables) that supplement your written information, illustrate difficult concepts or present supporting facts and data.

Get feedback

Solicit opinions about your work from those who have no familiarity with your topic. Do they find it easy to follow and understand? Do they come away feeling as though they’ve learned something? If so, pat yourself on the back!

Besides the obvious payoff of teaching others something that may have seemed out of their reach, the process of approaching your area of expertise through the lens of simplification may cause you to look at it from a different perspective or notice things about it you didn’t realize before.

And fear not. If simplifying your complex topic seems, well, complicated, you could always hire a writer to do it for you!

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