Communicating complex ideas to the public? Here's how to achieve simplicity

by Catherine Gicheru
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

I recently sat in on a conversation with communication officers from research institutions and one of them expressed fears that the information they were continually providing the public gave people “head pain.”

No, not a headache, because that is curable, but “head pain.” The point she was making and which I have tried to put across over the years to numerous communication officers from academia, research institutions, United Nations organizations and the private sector is that they must be able to simplify (and this does not mean dumb down) their message.

The communicators bemoaned the fact that the public was unaware of the very important findings their organizations were making and wondered how to engage the media.

What many “expert communicators” fail to realize is that they are talking above their audience, whether journalists or citizens, and they make the mistake of equating simplicity of message to dumbing down.  It is actually very difficult to achieve simplicity. Indeed, this is the challenge that many journalists are faced with every day — translating or interpreting complex ideas to simple messages that non-specialist audiences can understand.

Here are a few tips to achieve simplicity:

Understand what the citizen wants — information or data

If it is information, then the data must be presented in a usable format. Is it accessible to citizens and information intermediaries such as journalists, techies and others who must package it for public consumption (through text, visualization, apps, etc.)?

Humanize the data

What do the numbers mean to me and why should I care? Far too often the techniques used to explain data — visualizations, tables and maps, etc. — fail to capture the imagination or interest of the citizen. It is quite depressing to read a beautifully crafted report detailing how an intervention or research study had an impact on a disease, but find no mention of a beneficiary, victim or survivor of the disease. An example: the Cancer Crisis series of articles published in the Daily Nation.

Make it interactive

The same data presented in an interactive manner is likely to elicit a better reaction from citizens. Instead of being passive consumers of data, citizens can then make their will known and hopefully influence policies. One example of this is the Living Wage Calculator deployed in South Africa where users can calculate whether or not they are paying their domestic workers a satisfactory wage.

After a brief survey to determine what they are paying their employees, users are then invited to use a calculator to determine whether or not the rate is fair, taking into account the domestic worker’s household, cost of food, housing, transportation, education and other indicators. A prize-winning series of stories was produced using the data collected from the calculator, and focusing on domestic workers’ struggle to live on their low wages.

Make the data actionable

This is where collaboration between technologists and communicators (be they government, private sector or civil society) occurs. Making it easy for citizens to express their support or discontent, give feedback and make requests will encourage the use of the data generated by governments, civil society and the private sector.

Some examples of tools where the nexus between technologists and communicators has occurred successfully are: the Dodgy Doctors platform which allows users to avoid quacks by confirming whether or not their doctors are properly registered; whistleblowing platforms such as AfriLeaks which allows individuals to submit tips and information on issues of public interest and WildLeaks, which allows tips on forest and wildlife crimes; and which allows individuals or organizations to set up petitions on issues of concern.

These are not all the solutions to relieving “head pain” caused by poorly presented data, but they can form the basis for a shift in thinking about data and help the experts understand how NOT to communicate.

Catherine Gicheru is a veteran Kenyan journalist working with Code for Kenya. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Bill Gracey.