How to deliver complex messages – successfully!

Complex messages

I am sure we have all done it – you have a great idea, an important message or a brilliant product and you explain it to your audience of colleagues, team or customers. But they don’t get it! How can this be? Surely they could see how compelling this is. But they couldn’t.

Many of us fall into the trap of being so enthused about our message that we go to the content too soon. We know we need to provide an introduction but often that is also focused on the content that is about to be delivered. I was recently reminded of the importance of structuring complex messages while being coached on a new team performance tool that we are taking on (more of that later!) The training is structured in three sections: Context, Concept and Content. These three sections help the audience relate to the message, appreciate the principles or structure then understand and remember the detailed content.

Here are the three steps you can use to structure your own complex messages and deliver them effectively. These can be used in briefings, both internally and externally; presentations; demonstrations; training and also documents such as reports.


This is the hook that connects your audience to the message. Using the Story-telling technique, begin by describing the problem or situation, in terms that the audience can understand and relate to. It helps to make this personal too. For example, when demonstrating a staff rostering system to a prospective client’s team, an opening relating to their daily challenge could include this. “You know when you have spent ages planning the staffing of the walk-in health centre, and then find out two key people will be on holiday? You have to start all over again!” Much nodding in the audience. “Well, we have a system here that can schedule and reschedule your staff roster instantly.” The audience now knows that the solution relates to their problems.


If we dive into detail at this point, the audience could get very confused very quickly. It is worth taking a few moments to explain key principles and ideas, or a framework on which to attach detail later. In fact some people will “get” the message at this point if they are generalists rather than detailed analysts. In our staff rostering example, the next step could be to explain using a flip chart or diagrams on screen how staff skills, availability, rules on working hours, numbers of people with skills required per shift are all held on tables in the system. A rostering algorithm (black box) instantly calculates the optimum staff roster for each shift. No detail, no screens, just concepts!


This is where we finally allow ourselves to get to the meat of the message – or so we think. The detail is what we are excited about, and our audience is now ready and able to understand it. This is great. However, not everyone needs or wants detail. If we have done a good job explaining the Concept, our audience might already be “sold” on the idea. The Content becomes just a proof point, or additional detail to satisfy the analytical. If we had dived into the detail too early, we may had had the double whammy of both missing the opportunity to sell the idea to the generalists and also confusing the detail people by neglecting to provide a framework for the content. In a software demonstration, this could be a few screens and a walk-through of the sequence of actions required to create a new staff roster.

These three simple steps can revolutionise the presentation of complex messages. In fact, complex is a relative term; what might be simple to you might initially be complex for the audience. This structure is important when delivering good news and ideas, but is equally important when delivering bad news. The key to both is audience engagement. If you have an engaged and understanding audience, the detailed content is far more likely to be understood and accepted.

Neville Merritt