Making the complex simple

Working on my business strategy for 2020 meant looking back over this past year and asking myself what my clients needed and what they struggled with the most. The answer surprised me.

All of my clients are specialists in their fields: real estate developers, architects, engineers, programmers, and bankers just to name a few. Although grammar is something we work on constantly, I wouldn’t say any of them struggle with it. The same could be said for vocabulary. In fact, their specialist vocabulary is never anything I need to teach – they come into the profession already knowing this language.

So, the overriding theme for last year wasn’t grammar or vocabulary, which, by the way, is something everyone thinks they need. No, the overriding theme was helping people explain what they do to people who aren’t real estate developers, engineers, architects, programmers, or bankers. It was taking the complex and making it simple.

For example, one of my clients, a brilliant architect, was tired of the management team in Rotterdam asking the same questions over and over again, so we decided to write up an FAQ. As we started on the first question, I could see the problem. The question was basically, “why can’t we build the structure this way?” His answer took 20 minutes – and I only understood a fraction of what he was saying. Let me be clear: his English was fine. He was just giving me a really long, complicated answer. After nearly 40 minutes of back and forth, it came down to “Because it doesn’t meet German building code.” We worked on a less technical explanation about why it didn’t meet building code, but the answer was three sentences, not 20 minutes of techno talk.

This scenario played out again when another client, who happens to be a brilliant programmer, tried to beef up her CV. While it was necessary for her to discuss the technical aspect of her work, she also needed to explain how she uses these technologies to the interviewers from Human Resources. Truthfully, it took a while. In fact, it’s like learning a completely new language. You have to think differently. Most importantly, you have to think about your audience. (She got the job, by the way.)

For me, making the complex simple is part of my training as a public historian with the US National Park Service. There are two parts to a job as a historian: conducting research, then communicating that research to an audience. In my case, I had two audiences – the general public and other historians. And how you communicate to those two audiences is vastly different.

For example, if you were delivering a paper to other historians, you would start by discussing the historiography, i.e., how other historians have covered this topic over time. Then you go into your topic, which would be very narrow and very deep. The vocabulary would be academic, the sentences long, and the grammar very complicated. It would probably take the form of a lecture, with questions at the end.

By contrast, the tours we gave of our historic house lasted 45 minutes. During that time, we had to cover the entire history of the estate from its founding in 1783 up until the time the owners gifted it to the US government in 1948. We talked about the Revolutionary War, slavery, the Civil War, and the early 20th century. The tour was interactive, with docents asking questions of the audience to keep them engaged. Discussion was encouraged. Vocabulary was kept simple, as many of our guests were children or non-native English speakers. The research conducted for these tours was no less rigorous than research conducted for an academic paper. But the goal here wasn’t to tell our guests everything we knew about the site. They didn’t need to know about the historiography or great details about 19th-century Federalist ideology. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to tell them enough that they came away knowing something more about the site than when they arrived. For some, that was enough. If they wanted or needed to know more, we were happy to discuss it with them after the general tour.

When promoting this less-is-more method to clients, some push back. They worry that simplification equals a “dumbing down” of their work. But I think it’s just the opposite. Einstein himself said, “Things should be made as simple as possible but not any simpler.” And you do that by knowing your audience.

So, that will be my focus for 2020 – helping professionals make the complex simple. What complexities are you struggling with professionally? Message me, or better yet, post a comment below and let’s share ideas. I look forward to hearing from you!


My name is Laura Marshallsay, and I help professionals improve their English so they can present themselves to the world with confidence. If you haven’t already done so, subscribe to this blog so you never miss an issue.  And don’t forget to go to Marshallsay English to download my free guide “Top Tips for Conference Calls.”