How to Learn Simplification

Simplification allows you to explain any concept to anyone at any level of understanding.

Learning how to simplify any concept requires that you accept that anything can be simplified. You have to convince yourself that no matter how immensely complicated something is, it can always be explained simply to anyone. The only barrier to being able to simplify a concept is your depth of knowledge of that concept and your ability to imagine analogies.

Consider the following short – but not simple – explanations of the global economy:

  • The global economy is the worldwide economic activity between various countries that are considered intertwined and thus can affect other countries negatively or positively. 
  • The global economy is all the economies of the world which we consider together as one economic system.
  • The global economy is the international spread of capitalism across national boundaries and with minimal restrictions by governments.

These are proper adult explanations that if you gave them to a group of your colleagues, everyone would be impressed. The fact that you would be tempted to give these explanations, and the fact that people would seem impressed, is indicative of two bad habits that make communicating complex concepts fail miserably:

  1. We try to explain concepts in the most complicated way that we can so that we seem smart. 
  2. We say we understand something when we don’t, so we don’t seem stupid. 

If you put the two phenomena together, you have people in the workplace explaining concepts that are not understood by their colleagues, but their colleagues say they do. Sadly, this is how almost all corporate presentations of new ideas are done. 

Now consider if we were to explain the global economy to a child using analogies that the child is familiar with:

  • The global economy is like a big grocery store where everyone in the world can shop for anything they want.
  • The global economy is like you trading your cookie with someone in another country for some chocolate.
  • The global economy is like a big piggy bank where everyone all around the world puts their money in.

If you used these explanations with your colleagues, you might run the risk of not sounding smart, but that will only be temporary, as these child-friendly explanations invite questions where the answers allow you to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge:

  • “Yeah, but not everyone in the world can shop at the same store, right?” to which you reply, “They can if they’ve signed a trade agreement.”
  • “Yeah, but how much chocolate can you get for one cookie?” to which you reply, “That’s decided as an exchange rate.”
  • “Yeah, but what happens when people want to take their money out of the piggy bank?” to which you reply, “Inflation would skyrocket, and the global economy would collapse.”

When we present ideas simply, we are making sure everyone listening has the same foundation of understanding, and on that foundation, we can add more complex concepts. Without that foundation, you run the risk of losing your audience early and learn only at the end of a lengthy explanation that you lost everyone in the first 30 seconds.

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