Wisdom for Work

The Most Common Mistake People Make When Explaining Ideas

Explaining ideas

We all have to communicate in the course of our work, whether it’s with colleagues, clients or providers.

However at least one aspect, explaining ideas clearly, is much easier said than done.

You’ve probably experienced something like this: You’re at work, and you’re having a little difficulty using that spreadsheet to create a report. So you ask an expert to come over and help you out.

They begin to unload on you all sorts of steps and details you need to complete, bombarding you with information until you’re quite lost, confused or both.

Or how about this: You attend an in-house seminar and, as you’re sitting there listening to the presenter, you start to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data on the slides, and the number of slides, one after the other. Again, you lose interest and/or become confused.

Wrong Type, Wrong Way

The common mistake in both cases is that the information being presented is probably the wrong type and is being delivered in the wrong way.

The result?
• Loss of the listener’s attention
• Confusion on what the key messages are
• Increased risk of no action being taken
• A big dent in the reputation of the speaker.

No one wants those outcomes. Here’s my take on what to do to avoid them and instead be seen as clear, helpful, and inspiring as a communicator at work.

The key is to think messages, not details.

Details are only useful once a person has bought-in to the overall message. That’s because adults need context in order to determine whether a message is worth paying attention to, and acting on. Once they’ve understood the messages, they’ll be ready to receive the details.

So, think messages, not details.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you’re presenting to senior decision makers, promoting the idea of changing to a newer computer programme.

If you lead with details, you might say something like this:

“We need to do something. Last week, when we ran the report on application errors for our branches, we saw that over 27% of items were running at five errors or more. That’s well above the CPD levels that we agreed to with Finance. It’ll be because we’re not linking the initial scans with the reports coming out of the SAP module and therefore the coding of the fields isn’t aligning to…”

That is potentially clouding the issue, the message and the benefits of the change, which risks your idea being given the cold shoulder.

Details don’t achieve the buy-in.

If, instead, you lead with messages, then you might say something like this:

“In essence, we have an issue with the current software in that it wastes time and effort, and gives us an unusually high error rate. That’s costing us our reputation. In short, it’s working but it’s like flying in a DC3 instead of in a nicer, quieter and cheaper modern jet. I’m suggesting it’s time for a change.”

Hopefully, you can see that this is easier to listen to, easier to understand and has an emotive aspect to it. It’s likely to result in the decision maker saying, “Ok, what’re you recommending?”


So, in your workplace communication, and especially when you’re communicating with clients or customers, don’t bombard people with endless details. It’ll just overwhelm them.

Instead, when explaining ideas, start with the key messages and win their interest in taking it further.

Question: How have you seen this play out in your work?

You might also find this helpful:

A subtle difference that has a big impact

How to speak with clarity – use this framework

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