Building Blocks: Explain Your Complicated Idea By Layering Content

istock-alphabet-building-blocks-1-4-mb           Stop overwhelming your audience! Eager to jump to the big idea, writers and presenters often get too complicated too quickly leaving knowledge seekers dazed in confusion and decidedly tuned out. When exactly did they stop paying attention to your presentation? Was it five minutes or did they make it to ten?

Be gentle with your audiences. Don’t hit them over the head with a complicated idea before they are mentally prepared to receive and process it. Help them work their way up the ladder to your big concept step by step.   Don’t expect too much from them in the opening minutes of your talk or your paper.

“Building blocks” or “layering” is a great technique to help us dole out bite-sized bits of information in moderation. We take one simple idea and gradually put it on top of another idea … giving our audience the chance to absorb new material. We increasingly add slightly more complicated ideas as we progress. Comfortably, we break through barriers of bafflement and disbelief by taking one step at a time. We never force our audience to digest too much information at once. We smoothly elevate them to a higher plain of understanding. Like climbing a mountain – look at the short path before you, not the entire route to the peak.

When a subject is truly complicated we need to nurture our audiences to help them comprehend.   Raise them to a more mature level of understanding, but do it gradually. Help them along by using the building block technique. Adult learning specialists Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard Mayer advise you to “help the learner manage the complexity by breaking down the lesson into manageable segments – parts that convey just one or two steps in the process or procedure.” They recommend we “minimize extraneous cognitive loads so that learners can allocate limited working memory resources to learning.”

If your audience doesn’t have the prerequisite knowledge to understand your idea, you have no choice but to give them a tutorial to help them build a path to comprehension. Invest a few paragraphs at the beginning of your paper or a few minutes at the start of your presentation to lay the groundwork. By breaking down your complicated story into manageable chunks, you can construct building blocks. Think of a complicated idea as the sum of smaller, easier-to-comprehend nuggets of information.   Reveal the building blocks to your audience at a gradual pace – let them acclimate bit by bit – not revealing the entire 50 story building or 12,000 foot mountain all at once.

Each step is a block of knowledge that’s useful to understanding the greater topic. Let your reader or audience member take one simple step at a time. Let them take a subject they are already familiar with and add on an increasingly difficult layer of complexity. Keep building layer on top of layer, step by step, taking what is already known and expand upon that knowledge. Build a staircase to your ultimate complexity.

The goal is to make the abstract attainable not in one swoop but through a graduated, more digestible, approach. When we encounter a new concept our brains intrinsically scour our memories looking for a similar experience to attach the new situation. That is, the brain “looks for” connections to earlier information so it knows where to store new sensory input. Adult learning specialists Kathleen Taylor and Annalee Lamoreaux write in an article “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” that our brains want to find existing patterns that appear to “make sense” of an idea and thus be more likely to be remembered. When a brain can’t find a commonality, it can’t forge meaningful links to existing patterns.

In layering, you search for a series of simple steps that can lead your audience to an understanding of something they have never encountered. This exercise forces you to not only comprehend the essence of your subject, but to understand the entire framework the concept is built upon. A superficial understanding isn’t going to work here. That’s actually good. You’ll be a better communicator if you comprehend the details lying beneath the surface.



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