Instant Engagement: Communicating Difficult Ideas and Concepts

concept for same old thinkingEver find yourself tongue-tied when trying to verbally describe a complex idea to someone else? Conveying a POINT can be nigh impossible particularly when the crux of that point is technical, abstract, industry-specific. Add to that challenge the fact that we often find ourselves (as part of a digitally distributed team) on the phone, video conference call, or conducting business conversations via email.

3 (Nearly) Magical Engagement Solutions to use when you need to make a crystal clear point and the topic is murky and complex: (Warning: these can save time, money, energy, and almost everyone will “get it.”)

1. Create characters who can speak for themselves: when a writer sets about developing a story or novel, they begin with character development. When they are done, you can see, hear, touch, and smell that character–they become real to a reader, which is why we cry, laugh, get angry, and otherwise deeply and viscerally engaged in a good story. By nature we tend to become viscerally engaged when asked to “listen to a story.” And we’re pretty good at telling stories if we allow ourselves to be so brave–you don’t need to be Hemingway to tell a simple and engaging story.

Tip: Try conveying your idea using characters and a story that someone else has already created. Think about the characters you see on TV, in the comic books, in the movies. Consider your audience — what characters and stories in current culture would already be familiar to them? Use them as your ready-made “customer” personas and leverage their story and characteristics to make a point or a difficult concept more accessible (you may not be able to use this outside an “internal” group discussion due to copyright, but it can be instantaneously engaging and it costs you nothing but a few minutes of creative idea generation). This “story-telling tactic” is also just a great way to jazz up an otherwise dry and lifeless power point presentation.


  • Word – good ol’ MS Word is free and flexible. Insert a few images, write captions that clarify your point or get more creative and write a simple  story.
  • Blog – many blog platforms offer options for creating pages that can be password-protected. Why not create a page on a blog where you can create a story then distribute the url and password to your team. (tip: people dig “password-protected”–it appeals to their sense of exclusivity–and it IS!).
  • Comic creation apps – make your story into visual eye candy using a free or low-cost comic creation app. I have used Comic Book! myself and it gets my thumbs-up for price, ease of use, and engagement. It’s both an iPhone and iPad app and you can share your comic strip via email or save as pdf. Free features are more than enough for creating visually engaging (and incredibly entertaining) stories. Who doesn’t love a comic strip especially when it’s been created just for them?

2. Share a picture that’s worth a 1000 words: visuals no matter how simple can be amazingly engaging. You don’t have toWhiteboard Drawing be an artist or a designer to create something visual and tools for sketching and photo editing abound no matter your experience. Most cellphones have cameras so you can easily snap your own picture. iPads have cameras and you can take screenshots as well with many devices. Have access to whiteboard? Make a quick sketch (doesn’t have to be fancy as long as it conveys a point) and snap a picture. You can email it, add it to a presentation, upload it to a photo editing program and jazz it up with some effects and text, etc. Get colleagues to stop multi-tasking and pay attention by tossing something visual into the mix.


  • Photo editing: I mourned with Picnik shut down 😦 But now I use PicMonkey, which is actually created by a couple of former Picnikers and others. Touch up, add cool effects, add text and other embellishments; then save and use just like any other photo.
  • Sketching apps: tons of apps for both smartphones and tablets let you draw freehand. I love Penultimate, an Evernote tool that offers freehand sketching with options for embedding images.
  • Infographics – I am a total infographic junkie. Thankfully there are quite a few online tools that offer ready-made templates for creating professional looking infographics with your own data elements and a little vision. Infogr. am and are just two.

3. Define the “negative” of the problem: If you ever took a drawing class in school you probably did an exercise at some point called drawing negative space, or the rendering the space around an object. This is a basic technique for improving drawing skills. But I’ve learned that I can apply a similar technique for helping define complex ideas. When I spend some time not only describing what something IS, but what it also is NOT, I tend to be able to see many more “ah-has” than when only defining or describing the “what it is” of a thing. So paint the outside as well as the inside of a thing, the positive along with the negative, the yin and the yang — because they are symbiotic — one doesn’t work completely without the other.


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