How to make sure your audience can follow you

A yawn. A frown. A remark that suggests they misunderstood you.

And you thought you explained something simple.

Why can’t people follow you? And more importantly: what can you do about it?

There is a technique for guiding people smoothly through your story, step by step. Even if that story is about something complex.

Since I started training people online, I have been using this technique more and more.

And I ask myself: why didn’t I do this before?

Like beads on a string

The technique that I am talking about is called ‘stringing’.

Or in any case, that is what I call it. As far as I know, there is no official name for it.

When you string, you connect a new concept to an old one – one that your audience is already familiar with.

Sounds simple?

It isn’t always in practice. Therefore: here are 6 tips for stringing properly.

1. Connect something new to something familiar

Theta interactions.

Without any context, this concept probably does not mean much to you. A concept only becomes understandable once it is linked to something familiar.

That is the reason why metaphors and analogies are so effective. When you string your concepts, you use a similar mechanism.

You always connect a new concept to a concept which you already introduced your audience. A concept you have made them ‘familiar’ with.

For instance:I took this example from a Nature article. For the sake of readability, I simplified it somewhat.

  • As you grow older, your working memory deteriorates.
  • This working memory deteriorates when certain brain circuits become less well connected.
  • The decreased connectivity in these brain circuits is the result of problems with two so-called theta interactions.
  • It is these theta interactions that we can stimulate using a new method.

As you can see, each new concept is explicitly linked to a concept in the previous bullet point.

As a result, the role of complex ‘theta interactions’ in this story is clear. Even to people who know nothing about these interactions.

As a knowledge worker you often communicate about complex, specialist concepts like theta interactions. For instance, about spin-lattice relaxation times (physics), Whole Life Costing (construction) or allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (healthcare).

You can connect such specialist, unfamiliar concepts to a more general, familiar concept, step by step. A concrete, common concept, one which your audience is familiar with.

Your story is then shaped like a funnel: it moves from broad (general) to narrow (specific).

When you string your concepts, I recommend using color to mark the linking concepts – so these are the words that you repeat in the next bullet point. Just like I did in the example.

This is not my own idea, by the way. I got it from scientific writing coach Anna Clemens

So, this is what a good string of concepts looks like schematically:

  • AB
  • BC
  • CD

2. Don’t skip steps

Do you introduce a concept without connecting it to something familiar? That means you skip a step.

  • As you grow older, your working memory deteriorates.
  • Brain circuits become less well connected due to problems with two so-called theta interactions.

With this storyline, you assume that your audience is already knowledgeable about this topic. You assume that they know that the working memory has something to do with brain circuits.

Or that they can make this connection on their own.

Sometimes that’s the case, but you shouldn’t always count on it. Especially when you introduce more complex topics.

As an expert you tend to overestimate your audience. This phenomenon is known as ‘The curse of knowledge‘.

Even when you know your audience can make the connection, it is often still better to string these concepts together. It makes your story smoother and less bumpyThis text is understandable, but a bit bumpy:

Every year, the number of electrical cars increases.
The biggest challenge for policy makers is to decide where and when to add charging stations.

So don’t string like this:

  • AB
  • CD

3. Introduce one concept at the time

When you string, you build your story step by step.

Usually, it is wise to take no more than one step at the time. Which means: introduce no more than one new concept at the time.

If you don’t, you probably make your audience work too hard.

  • As you grow older, your working memory deteriorates.
  • The working memory deteriorates when certain brain circuits become less well connected, due to problems with two so-called theta interactions.

There is one exception to his rule of thumb.

Is your story about multiple concepts that have an equal ‘status’ in the story? Then it often makes sense to introduce these together.

In such cases it is extra important to make the structure of your story explicit.

  • These two theta interactions are the theta-gamma phase amplitude coupling (1) and the theta phase synchronization (2).
    • The theta-gamma phase amplitude coupling (1) takes place in the temporal lobe.
    • The theta phase synchronization (2) takes place in the frontotemporal cortex.

So, in general, don’t string like this:

  • AB
  • BCD

4. Familiar concepts first

A common writing advice is ‘complexity last‘.

This means that you should put simple information at the beginning of a sentence. And complex information at the end.

It is also a good approach when you string: start your sentences with the part that your audience is already familiar with.

The new concept is always ‘more complex’, more difficult to process.

If you don’t do this, your audience doesn’t know where you are going.

  • Your working memory deteriorates, as you grow older.
  • A decrease of connections in certain brain circuits lead to the deterioration of the working memory.
  • Problems with two so-called theta interactions result in these circuits being less well connected.

It takes more cognitive energy to follow this storyline. And it has a less pleasant flow.

That is because similar concepts sit far apart from each other. The link with the familiar, old concept doesn’t become apparent until you reach the end of the sentence.

So don’t string like this:

  • BA
  • CB
  • DC

5. Remove unnecessary repetitions

Stories about complex topics tend to contain many concepts.

How do you keep your story manageable?

The trick is to only use concepts when you really need them. Preferably clustered at one single pointThe previously mentioned article by Anna Clemens contains a nice example of this. in your story.

A concept then appears in two consecutive bullets. And only there.

Otherwise you risk conceptual overkill:

  • As you grow older, your working memory deteriorates.
  • Older people’s working memories deteriorate as a result of the fact that certain brain circuits are less well connected.
  • These important circuits for the working memory are related to two so-called theta interactions.
  • We can improve older people’s working memory by using a new method, which stimulates these theta interactions.

The green concept ‘working memory’ appears in every bullet point.

In the last few bullets, this concept is crowding out the new, more specific concepts. As a result, these new concepts may be overlooked.

Also, if you don’t cluster your concepts, your sentences become unnecessarily complex as you continue to add new concepts.

So don’t string like this:

  • AB
  • ABC
  • BCD

6. Avoid synonyms

Working memory, working memory, working memory.

To avoid such repetitions, people often use synonyms.

Stylistic variation makes a story less monotonous.

But synonyms can be dangerous when you are stringing.

  • As you grow older, your working memory deteriorates.
  • Your short term memory deteriorates when certain brain circuits are less well connected.

Because of the synonym, there is less emphasis on the concept that links the two bullet points: ‘working memory’. People can no longer see instantly how the new concept is related to the old.

In the best case, your audience has to work harder because of the synonym.

In the worst case, they don’t recognize the synonym as such.

To avoid repetitions, you can sometimes refer to the previous sentence by using words like ‘this’, ‘that’ and ‘these’.

  • This happens when certain brain circuits are less well connected.

So don’t string like this:

  • AB
  • βC
  • χD

String concepts whenever you can

The stringing technique is mainly useful when you are in the phase of building a story structure. By making a bullet list, for instance.

But you can also use it in a full text, a presentation, or any other type of communication.

For instance, you can string the titles of slides together. Or the first sentence of each paragraph. Or the sentences within a paragraph.

In online training courses, I often analyze the connecting concepts in a story, adding colors to a shared screen.

Clearly, you can do this too.

Not sure if your audience will be able to follow you?

Grab a pair of markers, digital or real!

Arnaud is trainer, advisor and text writer at Analytic Storytelling. He helps customers to send out a clear and convincing message in both words and images.