The only way to communicate complex ideas

For one glorious semester a few years ago, I was a teaching assistant in a Chicago community college English classroom. I like to think that I blew my students’ minds with my clever use of rhetorical games and kinetic YouTube videos—I’m so young and hip, and words are cool!—but at the end of the day, they had a standardized test to pass. So I tried to focus on what matters.

One day, I knew I’d hit on something when I taught them about the known-new contract, which essentially states that the writer should put ideas in order: begin with the known information before introducing a new topic. This concept creates grammatically cohesive sentences, which have a better chance of being conceptually cohesive. The idea flows through the words, and the reader is able to follow the writer’s train of thought.

When the known-new contract is breached, you get passages like this:

“This event is designed to introduce you to the basic concepts of the company’s marketing efforts. A thorough explanation will also be presented, situating our guiding philosophy in the context of the success and failures of other companies in the industry. Furthermore, three arguments that suggest potential avenues for new marketing initiatives will be outlined.”

Here’s the same passage, rearranged to honor the known-new contract:

“This event is designed to introduce you to the basic concepts of the company’s marketing efforts. These efforts will be explained in the context of other companies’ marketing successes and failures. To conclude, the presenters will outline three potential avenues for new marketing initiatives.”

This is a simple example, but the contract goes beyond sentence-to-sentence relationships; it applies to paragraphs, sections, chapters, and even books in a series. Honoring the contract sets up a reader-centric form of writing: it gives the reader the necessary tools to understand the ideas, in order, as they move down the page and through the big and small ideas.

This concept is especially important when communicating complex ideas that are apt to lose the reader’s attention—a common occurrence in technical or dense business writing. Subject matter experts, who are so well versed in their field, sometimes forget to bring the reader along for the ride. They know more than they can fit on the page and may unwittingly leave out key details because they assume it’s already part of the reader’s knowledge base. They’re off in their own world.

At the sentence level, there are a few simple tricks: pronouns, synonyms, and signal words and phrases such as “therefore,” “moreover,” and “however” help the reader connect the related ideas. But clarity of wording must be preceded by clarity of thought. That’s why every English teacher—including me during my brief stint—makes students outline their ideas before they begin to draft. I do love a good stream-of-consciousness piece of writing, but few people can do that as well as Virginia Woolf, so the rest of us are better off organizing our ideas before sitting down to write.

With dynamic language, clear ideas, and a conceptual road map, there’s no need to boil down or get lost in the details of whatever fascinating thing you have to say. Eloquent, complex writing must begin with clarity.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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