How experts can help a general audience understand their ideas

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

a brain operating a machine - present complex ideas

When you’re presenting to people in your field, it’s OK to use specialized terms and acronyms, because they’ll be comprehended quickly. But for everyone else, you need to take a different approach. Communication methods that would impress your peers may ostracize a broader audience — and reduce the chances your ideas will be adopted.

By following these three rules, you can translate what you know into words and concepts that will feel meaningful—and applicable—to a lay audience.

1. Use metaphors to make jargon accessible. Remember what it was like before you became an expert — before all those buzzwords and acronyms crept into your discourse? Metaphorical language, a simple poetic device, can help you match that level of understanding.

Consider how Jeff Hudson, the CEO of Venafi, described internet security when addressing executives in Global 5000 businesses: He likened cryptographic keys and digital certificates — which identify web servers, software, devices, apps, and critical infrastructure — to the tags attached to every cell in the human body. “Keys and certificates are blindly trusted,” he pointed out. “Cybercriminals use them to hide in encrypted traffic.” Hudson said that Venafi solved that problem by functioning like our immune system, which relies on our cells’ tags “to identify what is self and what isn’t — what to trust and what to destroy.”

2. Minimize the content on your slides. Each field has a unique way of communicating visually. You may be able to flash a dense data slide in a meeting with company or industry insiders without confusing anyone. But a broader audience will want to see the high-level findings — not the data itself.

A skin care company my firm has worked with created the charts below to show how one of its products changes the appearance of skin over time. That worked fine for internal audiences. When reaching out to young Instagrammers and bloggers, however, a marketing manager simplified the data into memorable results. That made the message more easily understood at a glance.


example of a confusing slide with two charts


data streamlined into easy to understand images

3. Communicate less material. Eliminate all but the most essential pieces of your talk, and then unpack concepts that are foreign to your audience. Allow yourself to take a bit more time per point than you would with your peers. Yes, cutting material and giving your points more breathing room may make you feel uncomfortable, because you’re losing nuance. But if you just do the same old talk you always do, it won’t benefit your audience or your message. The value of an idea is judged not just by its content but also by how well it’s understood. So it’s critical to remove barriers to understanding — even if those barriers are details your peers would appreciate.

Once you dive in, you may find that making your talk simpler is actually pretty difficult. Matching your communication to your audience takes time and requires an imaginative leap. You have to try to forget what you know — but not to the point of talking down to your audience. You’re addressing nonexperts, but always assume that they’re intelligent.

One way to shift your mindset is to change your environment. Instead of writing your talk from your lab or office, try moving to a new location, like a café, a park, or the public library. That removes the temptation to approach your presentation the way you approach other things at work. Sometimes changing just one small habit in your creative process can yield something fresh for an entirely new crowd.

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