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Don’t Get Lost in Translation: Communicating Complex Ideas to a Lay Audience

March 26, 2024

A group of women of various ages listening attentively to someone communicating complex ideas to the audience.

For researchers and scholars, effectively communicating complex ideas can feel like an unbearable challenge. Reaching outside the ivory tower and talking with lay people may feel like a feat. How do you take highly complex, niche topics and translate them in a way that resonates with a wider lay audience while also maintaining the essence of the work? 

The truth is, it’s an art – but one that can be learned. You just have to master the fundamentals of human connection.

This is the core insight from Charles Duhigg, communication expert and author of the book “Supercommunicators,” in a recent interview on The Good Life Project¹ with Jonathan Fields on how to connect quickly and deeply with anyone. I was listening to this podcast thinking how practical Duhigg’s advice was for researchers and scholars who are interested in learning how to communicate complex ideas to a lay audience². Duhigg revealed fascinating research that gets to the heart of how we can build genuine understanding between any two people, which can apply to communicating complex ideas. 

The Three Layers of Communication

The first step is recognizing there are actually three types of communication happening simultaneously in every conversation – the practical (solving problems), the emotional (sharing feelings), and the social (relating perceptions). Two people on different wavelengths is when messages get lost in translation.

As researchers used to navigating in the practical realm, the key is strategically matching the emotional and social wavelengths of your audience first when communicating complex ideas. Your audience is the receiver – one person, a few people, a large group of people. Matching wavelengths builds the crucial foundation of trust and openness needed for absorbing complex ideas.

Building Trust and Understanding

Start by asking open-ended questions that invite your audience to share their beliefs, experiences and worldviews related to your topic. “What first sparked your interest in this subject?” or “What part of this issue currently has the biggest impact on your life?” are great examples of prompting rich personal context.

Then practice active listening by repeating back key points they shared and asking if you understood correctly. This simple “looping” technique shows you are fully present and care about their perspective. As Duhigg states in the episode, “When someone shows they want to connect with us, we tend to see that as a very trusting gesture.”

Breaking Down Biases and Assumptions before Communicating Complex Ideas

What looping does is helps us remove any assumptions we may have about our research, about the receiver, etc. We all have our biases. The knowledge deficit model exists for a reason. But, as Duhigg stated in the interview about our biases and assumptions: “The number one step is to disrupt that story that’s inside our head. Like to put us in a place where I can actually listen to you.”

From this place of trust and mutual understanding, you’ve now opened the door to engage on the practical level. But even here, you have to resist the temptation to start talking pure facts and figures when communicating complex ideas. The most powerful tactic is to interweave your own personal motivations and journeys behind the research. 

“I became interested in this topic after experiencing/witnessing…” or “What kept me going was realizing how many people’s lives this could impact…” are great ways to expose some professional vulnerability when communicating complex ideas. This resonates far more than dry presentations or talking at the receiver. It also allows your audience to see the human motivation driving your work. 

The Power of Vulnerability & Authenticity in Communicating Complex Ideas

Duhigg also suggests being more vulnerable in your communication, but not in the 0 to 100 way you may think. “Sometimes vulnerability is just laughing that when someone says something that isn’t that funny, laughing to show them that you want to connect with them.” You need not share a traumatic story to get people to connect with you.

When it comes to presenting and communicating complex ideas with a larger audience, it’s not about having the perfect presentation and hitting all your cues. Practice, of course, helps you get more comfortable with the content and speaking to a larger audience, but Duhigg says the key is… “It’s about being genuine, right? It’s about being real on that stage. It’s about exposing something about yourself.”

And Duhigg offers, when talking to a larger group, one way to exhibit vulnerability is as simple as saying “…hey, it is so great to be here. Thank you so much. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.” It is nearly impossible to connect with everyone in a large group on the same level, but these few tricks can help lower the wall in between the two parties. 

Storytelling and Analogy: Making it Relevant

There really is not a subject matter too advance for this emotional/personal approach to communicating complex ideas. Duhigg cites examples of scientists effectively using analogies and stories to make even highly technical topics feel accessible and relevant to everyday lives. The common thread is meeting your audience wherever they are first as people, before trying to overload them with information and facts that you may believe they need to know. 

Conclusion

Ultimately, viewing communication as a two-way street reframes how we researchers should approach communicating complex ideas. It’s no longer about “impressive” credentials or unloading information, but inviting people into our world as curious partners on the journey, communicating with them as opposed to at them

Genuine connection through communication is a learnable skill. You can learn by recognizing different conversation types, meeting people where they are, and using techniques like vulnerability and deep questions to build understanding. It’s not as difficult as it seems if we are active members of the conversation.

To learn more from Charles Duhigg, check out his website.

Schedule a free strategy session with me to talk more about your communication goals.


1 – i love the Good Life Project podcast and it makes me want to be a better human. Subscribe if you are into those sorts of things.

2 – this term ‘communicating to a wider audience’ is innately incorrect as it suggests the conversation as one-way. I am working on reframing this in my own teachings and writings.

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Alicia Cintron, PhD

Research Public Communications Trainer & Coach + traveling Scholarpreneur

Welcome! Here you’ll find insight, musings, and thoughts about research, public engagement, communication, travel, and higher education. Have an idea for a topic for us to cover? Shoot us a note
 

Alicia Cintron, PhD

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