With Martin G. Moore

Episode #195

Understanding Fuels Communication: Make the complex simple

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

Communication is an incredibly important element of leadership. How you talk to your team… how you deliver a presentation when you’re in a room full of important people… how well you connect one-on-one with your direct reports… these are just a few situations that can have a huge bearing on your performance, and your personal credibility.

Knowing how to convey complex information in a simple manner that’s tailored for the audience is a core skill.

There are some key principles for getting your communication right, and making sure that you have clarity in your own head about what you’re communicating before you burden those around you with an ill-formed monologue.

In this episode, I reveal my top 7 tips for effectively communicating an important message to a variety of stakeholders.

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Episode #195 Understanding Fuels Communication: Make the complex simple

Communication is an incredibly important element of leadership. How you talk to your team, how you deliver a presentation when you’re in a room full of important people, and how well you connect one on one with your direct reports, can all have a huge bearing on your performance and your personal credibility. Knowing how to convey complex information in a matter that’s tailored for the audience you are addressing is critical.

Most people don’t think a great deal about the listening and learning styles of others. We simply tend to communicate the way we prefer to communicate. That’s fine, but there are some core principles for getting our communication right, and making sure that we have clarity in our own heads about what we’re communicating before we burden those around us with our ill-formed monologues. The better we understand something that we need to communicate, the more likely we are to get our point across effectively – especially when that message is being delivered to multiple external stakeholders, or people who work at different levels in your own organization.


Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” This is an incredibly important realization, and one that we should all take to heart. I’ve often said that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it. I found this several times during my career, but particularly when I was working in my original technical field of software development.

In the mid to late 1980s – I know it’s before some of you were born – I worked for a boutique consulting firm in Sydney. My boss at the time asked me to be the technical lead for a new software product that was being introduced to Australia. So he sent me to the US for a month or two to be trained by the owner of the product – my first foray to Boston, where I now live.

The intent was that I would learn about the product, then return to Australia to lead our company’s entry into the consulting and education market. I have to tell you, I worked pretty hard in those early days to learn the ins and outs of this new product, but I never had to really use it in anger. It was all in the controlled environment of the classroom with simulated examples, pre-prepared data, and trainer wheels firmly attached.

When I came back to Australia, I had to front up to client companies to teach classrooms full of programmers and analysts about this product. I found the conversation didn’t have to deviate far from the script before I was completely stumped. I understood the product at a superficial level, but I didn’t understand its inner workings sufficiently. I didn’t understand the design philosophy behind its features. I didn’t understand the interfaces to other products that it had to talk to, and I didn’t fully understand how it fit into the existing suite of tools that our client companies had already deployed. I realized that I had huge gaps in my knowledge because when I was asked a question, I couldn’t answer it succinctly.

I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t even close to my desired state of being a global expert in this sought-after product. I must admit, I found this quite daunting. The company had spent a tonne of money to train me, and I felt like I was nowhere near good enough to do the job. Now, I’ve never really subscribed to the fake it until you make it philosophy – I reckon that’s just a load of horseshit to make people feel better. Instead, I did the work.

I spent countless hours pouring over the base code for this product, working out how it all hung together. I leant heavily on my US contacts to help me with the answers I couldn’t find myself. I followed every strand of spaghetti in that code until I understood where each strand started and ended. And I used the product in anger to make sure that what I understood in theory translated into reality.

 In the end, I knew that product literally inside out and back to front, so when my corporate clients asked me questions, I could answer them in a completely different way. Because I had this deep understanding of the product, I could explain quickly and easily, in really simple terms, the complex inner workings. But it wasn’t until I’d done the work to acquire this deep understanding that I developed the language that enabled me to communicate.


In many industries and disciplines, complexity and opaqueness is welcomed. We sometimes believe that our specialist knowledge makes us more valuable and we protect that knowledge from outsiders. Now, the easiest way to do this is to make it appear complex and difficult to understand, to wrap it up in acronyms and jargon. How many business executives have you heard say that they don’t understand IT? That suits the IT guys perfectly: “If they don’t understand, they’ll leave us alone. It helps to protect our patch.” But it also leads to poor decision making, especially when it comes to investing in something that isn’t well understood. Hence, the plethora of disastrous IT projects whose corpses litter the landscape.

Using complexity as a means of protecting your expert power is probably the last thing you should be doing if you consider yourself to be a competent leader. Instead, doing everything you can to break through the mystique, and increasing the level of understanding that others have of your complex domain can be incredibly powerful. It enables you to communicate confidently and capably about virtually anything. As a leader in any type of business, you’ll often have to communicate some complex issues in a way that people who don’t live and breathe those same issues can understand. Most of the things you have to communicate, you won’t necessarily understand that well, but your job as a leader is to communicate it anyway.

For example, the CEO of an organization might have an incredibly clear picture in her head of the corporate strategy, but the board? Maybe not so much. Although it’s supposed to be the board’s job to set the strategy, they aren’t as well positioned as the management team is to have that understanding. Why? Well, they don’t have the time or the energy to do the painstaking work of reading mountains of background research, or analyzing the dynamics of the options and scenarios that the management team has tested. They just get the board papers for the strategy away-day ahead of the workshop, which is designed to lead them through to a desired conclusion. There’s quite a bit of theater in this, but very little genuine understanding.


Communicating below the CEO can be even harder. Each layer of leaders has to communicate messages from above that they haven’t necessarily been privy to formulating. Not only that, they have to be able to understand and convey what it means for their people, in their context. At each layer the communication goes through, there’s a little less clarity, a little less understanding, and a little more complexity, which makes it easy to answer a question by brushing it off. Lazy or ill-informed leaders will often answer a question by saying something like, “You don’t need to worry about X, just focus on Y.”

I call this the dilution effect, and it’s one of the main reasons that leaders may sometimes come across to their people as being irrational. The problem of not having sufficient understanding to communicate also occurs in other day-to-day leadership scenarios. For example, a leader who hasn’t done the work to really understand what might be holding one of their people back from their next promotion is likely to say something like, “You need to be more strategic.” That’s a bit of a dumb thing to say – what does it even mean? Unless it can be backed up with examples and a more granular assessment of an individual’s performance, it’s just not that helpful.

As another example: in any negotiation, you’ll find that it’s only possible to clearly articulate what outcome you want if you have a profound understanding of the value drivers – both yours and your counterparts. Understanding the complexity of the value at stake enables effective maneuvering around the issues by driving the conversation where you need to, and you have to be able to communicate really clearly to ensure you are understood. In so many ways, understanding fuels communication.

Have you ever been told to be more strategic? Decode what that really means with Episode #134: Be More Strategic – Whatever That Means!


It’s all about how you prepare, not necessarily what you say. Here are my top tips to getting your message across clearly, simply and impactfully:

1. Understand what you’re communicating

When I say this, I mean understand it at a level that enables you to answer any question confidently, concisely, and without resorting to jargon. Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize in quantum electrodynamics, has a method of understanding virtually anything, and he has the same view as Einstein: you have to be able to understand the complexity sufficiently to enable you to communicate it in its simplest terms.

It’s basically a two step process. The first step is to study the subject you want to communicate, just as I did the painstaking work all those years ago to learn the inner workings of that software product. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t do this work, you’ll find out soon enough that you are underdone – because the next step is to explain what you’ve learned to a child. When you try to break things down into simple ideas with plain vocabulary, you’ll soon find out whether you know enough about it. These two steps are pretty much ‘rinse and repeat’ until you can do step two in a way that’s competent.

2. Position your communication as a story

Don’t just communicate the facts at hand, provide color and context. Tell the story as if you are at a barbecue on a Saturday afternoon, and someone just asks you a question about that topic. People find it much easier to remember a story than they do isolated points and facts. For example, if you had to communicate an extremely complex commercial decision, like the closure of a manufacturing facility, don’t just say “It wasn’t working.” Try to build a simple story that goes something like this:

Here’s why we decided to reevaluate the viability of that particular facility. These are some of the questions we asked to get a better understanding of its future potential. These are some of the key findings from our deep dive analysis. We explored these options to try to make the facility work. But unfortunately, after all this, we couldn’t find a way that made sense to continue operating the facility. Now here’s what it means for you and the broader company.”

3. Test it out before you go too far

You want to find a way to take the opportunity that equates to Feynman’s step of explaining it to a child. You don’t always have a child handy, of course, but for important communication, it pays to test it out on someone who’s not familiar with the subject. It might be a direct report who’s a trusted advisor, or better still, get someone who isn’t necessarily close to you but is closer to the target audience of the communication. Ask them to pepper you with questions, explain it back to you and interpret it for their context.

4. If you have leaders below, you make sure they know what to do

It’s one thing for you to be incredibly clear in your communication, but how do you set up leaders below you to communicate effectively to their people? You have to help them to join the dots, and this starts right at the top: “This is our organization’s purpose. To fulfill that purpose, this is our strategy.” Of course, this breaks down further through tactical and operating plans to result in someone on the front line of the business taking action.

As a leader, you need to be able to say, “This is what it is, and this is what it means to you.” But remember the dilution effect as you go down through the layers. This requires you to plan out how each layer is expected to approach the problem, and the leaders at those levels have to be held accountable for communicating important messages, competently.

5. Tailor it for your audience

You want any communication to be in a language, and with the context, that makes it easy for the audience to receive it. You may have exactly the same message delivered to multiple audiences and how you word it could be completely different for each. For example, you may have an issue that has an impact in one of the community groups that you operate within. For the community groups themselves, you communicated to them in their terms, “Here’s what we are doing, and here’s how it affects you.” That same message for the board might be, “Here’s what we are doing, and here are the risks to the company.” Your message to local staff might sound like, “Here’s what we are doing, and here’s the part that you need to play in doing this successfully.” And you might say to a shareholder group, “Here’s what we are doing, and here’s how it makes sense for the long term value of the enterprise.”

I have seen many instances of one-size-fits-all communication falling flat because it was just not designed for its intended audience. My all time favorite came at a large meeting we held in a room filled with a few hundred blue collar workers in one of our remote locations. The CFO spent five minutes explaining why he chose to exclude the mark-to-market movements in our future financial derivatives book from the underlying EBITDA figure – now that was special!

6. Use multiple channels

A crisp, but comprehensive email from the corner office may be necessary, but it’s certainly not sufficient. People view the world through the eyes of their direct boss, so this is the communication that’s most needed to work effectively. If you’re higher up in an organization, use everything at your disposal:

  • Email

  • The intranet (if you have one)

  • Group meetings

  • Reinforcement at one on one meetings

  • A blog from the desk of the CEO

Use whatever channels you have to communicate something important. Don’t ever think it’s overkill! Many people might not engage at all on one channel, but are active on another. And if you are the CEO, don’t fool yourself that everyone in your organization is going to read and understand your email – they’re not.

7. Don’t be afraid to be repetitive

Now we may feel foolish when we say the same thing over and over. But marketing research tells us that a message has to be seen or heard at least seven times before it’s possible for any action to be taken based on that message. People in organizations aren’t any different. Don’t be afraid to keep pushing the same message with the same language as many times as you need to before you feel it’s getting traction – and the simpler the language, the more likely it is to stick in people’s minds.

You can see how important it is to gain a really deep understanding of something if you want to communicate it effectively. A deep understanding of the subject matter itself (which can sometimes be the trickiest part)… a deep understanding of the context around a subject that will enable you to turn it into a story… a deep understanding of the audiences, and the perspective they might view the subject from… a deep understanding of the language that will connect most effectively with the people you are delivering it to.

Great communication doesn’t just happen. It takes work to understand, plan, and execute any important message. It’s actually part of the hard work of leadership, so don’t avoid this work. This is the foundation for everything good that happens in your organization.


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