Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Making Complex Ideas Easy to Understand

If you read my last blog entry (below) you’ll remember that I discovered what is perhaps my key skill, making complex things easy to understand, following a long period of working with people whose background was very different to my own and thought very differently to myself.
This discovery didn’t come overnight and it was only after working in often difficult and frustrating circumstances that I was able to find my talent, even if it did have to be confirmed by people around me before the ‘light went on’ and I realised what it was!

In reality, the little phrase I now use to crystallise my skill, Making the Complex Easy was only finally formulated a couple of months ago whilst talking to my business mentor about it. Thankfully, Sandra is very persistent and also very perceptive and the phrase eventually fell out as I tried to capture what I did in less than a paragraph!

We were discussing my experiences whilst studying for my PhD; whilst working in the pharmaceutical industry; whilst working in schools; with friends; in church. Time and time again the examples we discussed had the same repeating theme:

How can I make it easy for others to understand what I’m saying?

This was important to me becasue I have always been someone who has had to work hard to understand things. Combine this with a severe lack of contentment if I couldn’t really ‘get inside’ and understand what I was trying to learn. Knowledge for me has more to do with its application than knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

By understanding something I can use my knowledge in how I decide to move forward and use it in my own life and situations.

So, I suppose it was a natural progression that I should want others to enjoy the same opportunities. Here are a few of the instances we discussed of how and when I’d made complex things easy:
  • My PhD was focussed on pain relief and what was involved in helping us control painful stimuli, so important in conditions like malignant diseases. More than once I was asked to explain what I was investigating by friends who had no science background. So, I was often trying to explain complex pharmacological and biochemical processes in simple terms like opening and closing gates, keys in locks, motorways and side roads.
  • One of my tasks whilst working in the pharmaceutical industry was training sales representative, many of whom were from a marketing and selling background and without any science input, on the decidedly unsimple process of our body’s immunological response to infection by viruses. Here terms like cavalry, snipers, secret messengers and chewing and spitting were used to demystify the process.
  • My last role in the pharmaceutical industry before I accepted redundancy was to provide technical and information support to physicians and researchers on the data available to support the use of a specific drug in difficult-to-treat and potentially life-threatening conditions. The problem I was faced with was that I had over 600 slides in my presentation with a usual time slot of a lunch break (i.e., between 10 minutes and 1 hour). My solution was to reverse the process and devise an interactive presentation where my audience told me what they wanted to talk about and we ‘dipped-in’ and ‘dipped-out’ of the presentation and information available. This seemed a revolution to many of my audience and I spent hours discussing how they could put together a similar format for their own work, thereby enabling the passing-on of important information in a more targetted way: reducing a complex array of slides to easy-to-digest, smaller segments.
  • Whilst working I often took time out to visit schools and help children to understand what they were learning in the science of sound arena. As a drummer and percussionist I was used to making sounds (noise some would call it) and as a scientist I understood some of the principles behind the sounds I was making. So I took samples of my drums and percussion into schools and we experimented together and began to understand what made some sounds high, some low; some loud and some soft. What amazed me after these lessons was that I received a lot of feedback on how the children had used some of the more socially orientated skills (listening, talking, thinking together) and the reasoning and experimental approaches in their other subjects and in generally working together in other lessons. Making it easy in one subject had been transferrable to other areas of school life (and hopefully in their wider life).
  • My daughter, who is no scientist, was revising for her GCSEs and needed to understand the basics of the electrophoresis of DNA for DNA profiling. Saying the word is difficult, let alone understanding it. So I explained that the long strand of DNA is cut into lots of smaller pieces by enzymes (chemical saws). The result is a bit like a shoal of fish: some very small; some larger; some longer; some big and some huge. The plate onto which the sample of ‘chewed DNA’ is placed is like lines of fishing nets and when the electric current was switched on, it was a bit like a river or the tide flowing, taking the fish with it. Little fish was pass easily through the nets and the longer and larger fish would get stuck more quickly or have to work harder to swim through the nets. The huge fish wouldn’t be able to get through at all and would stay where they were. At the end of the experiment when the electric current is switched off, it is like taking a snap shot or photograph of where all the fish are. The ‘bands of fish’ are like the bands of DNA on the plate: smaller fish/pieces of DNA have travelled furthest, largest fish/pieces of DNA haven’t been able to move at all. My daughter understood this more pictorial, less scientific approach and manged to answer questions on her GCSE paper, getting a Grade B which was a true miracle.

… and I guess that’s why I’m so passionate about making difficult things easy to understand … once we understand them we have chance to use the knowledge and achieve more than we thought possible.

There will always be those who like to keep things complicated because it gives them a sense of power and importance; they are the only ones who know. But in a world where increasing co-operation is becoming a key factor (especially in business) and clarity of understanding paramount, the sharing of knowledge in an easy to understand way is, I believe becoming ever more crucial, not only for success, but for survival.

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