This article is based on a talk I gave at Bristech in December 2018: ‘Talking Tech: the Art and Science of Communicating Complex Ideas’.

By all accounts F.E. Smith, a famous 19th century barrister and then Lord Chancellor, was a bit of a character. He had a reputation as a gifted orator and wit (and also a hard drinker).

One of his famous court exchanges concerns a judge who, after listening to Smith hold forth on a complex subject at length, said to him:

‘I’ve listened to you for an hour and I’m none the wiser.’

To which Smith replied:

‘None the wiser perhaps my lord, but certainly better informed.’

I often think about F.E.’s sly dig at the judge, as increasingly the world is a place where we are not just none the wiser, but also not terribly well informed, despite a deluge of information. The phrase ‘post-truth’ seems on the face of it to be a damning indictment of a world gone mad, where it is hard to communicate effectively about any topic that includes an element of complexity.

Technology and complexity

Much of current innovation is driven by developments in technology, some of which is complex and difficult to understand. AI, VR, blockchain and quantum computing are just a few examples of complex, rapidly-developing technologies which could have a profound impact on society, and which are triggering fundamental questions about ethics, privacy, and regulation. As Goldsmiths Lecturer Dan McQuillan points out with machine learning:

“If we cannot understand exactly what is being weighed in the balance, it is very hard to tell under what circumstances harm may be caused or in what ways the operations might be unethical”

Without some level of understanding of these technologies, it makes it impossible for us to make rational decisions about their ethical, societal and personal impacts. This could lead to our society sleepwalking into a dystopian future; or (and this is already happening to some extent) it could lead to fear and distrust of technologies that might end up restricting their capacity to bring positive benefits. So how do we communicate effectively about these technologies in order to have constructive and well-informed discussions?

A case study in communications: climate change

When I started taking an interest in the topic of communicating about complex technology, I thought it might be useful a look at another highly complex and high profile topic that has suffered from similar communications challenges: climate change. How have efforts to communicate and engage about this topic gone? Although I’ve only just scratched the surface of this area, here’s a brief outline of what I’ve found so far:

1. Don’t talk about the science (or tech)

It’s easy to assume that the problem with communicating complex ideas is down to a lack of scientific or technical literacy on the audience’s part: if only they understood the science, they’d take action. In fact, many studies show that science literacy has no bearing on people’s views on climate change: people’s opinions are far more likely to be shaped by their values and their sense of identity. Marine biologist and underwater robotics expert Andrew Thaler engages with communities about climate change by talking about the things those communities care about, rather than the scientific facts: in fishing communities, he talks about impacts on fish stocks, for example. Similarly, studies have shown that when climate change solutions are presented that clash with people’s ideologies (taxes and regulation for conservative free-marketeers), they are much less likely to accept that the science itself is valid than when solutions align with their values.

2. Help people build a conceptual model

Having said that explaining the science doesn’t help, it is however true that people need a basic level of understanding of the problem in order to appreciate its potential impacts. These basic understandings are called conceptual models or lay theories by social science researchers such as Stephen Flusberg, and are an important way that we navigate the world without having to develop deep knowledge of every subject.

Studies have found that analogies and metaphors can be an effective way of helping people create conceptual models of complex systems, but also affect their view on how to deal with those systems: for example, viewing the economy as a zero-sum game (where if one person makes more money, someone else somewhere must be making less) made people more likely to endorse conservative policies when their majority position in that economy was threatened.

3. Use the right language – or change it

We’re all familiar with the Gartner hype cycle, where emerging tech suffers from inflated expectations based on hyperbolic descriptions of its power and stage of development. This can lead to disillusionment as well as a lack of trust as people find that the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric.

Furthermore, when a debate becomes as polarised and extreme as climate change (particularly in the US), the language can become tainted and impossible for people to react to rationally. Sabrina McCormick of George Washington University actively avoids using the words ‘climate change’ in conversations with cities looking to become more resilient to extreme weather events, as she’s found that she has more success winning the support of city councillors if she avoids the term.

So, if particular terms have been misused, appropriated, over-hyped or tainted over time, then don’t hesitate to use different ones.

4. Be transparent about risks and clear about the consequences

In 2009, the US Department of Defence commissioned a report to establish lessons learned from communicating about technologies that involved risk. The report looked at tech such as nuclear energy, nanotech, and DNA manipulation and found that while being transparent about risk was very important, scientists tended to focus on the probability that a risk would be realized, while the general public was more likely to focus on the potential consequences. This was particularly true for those that inspired fear, regardless of how likely they were.

This might affect the balance of your communications – you might think that a potential consequence that is highly unlikely to happen doesn’t merit much discussion, but it may be one of the only ones your audience wants to hear about.

Use complexity to encourage curiosity

In Amanda Ripley’s fascinating ‘Complicating the Narratives’, she discusses her time spent with mediation organisations, investigating how to bring people with differing views together. According to her findings, while it is true that sharing the complexity of the science or tech in question does not help bring consensus, encouraging people to engage with the complexity of the issue – the ethical, practical and societal implications for example – does have a positive effect.

This makes sense: we have all seen how some news media take a reductionist and confrontational approach to debates, pitting extreme views against each other in formats that don’t permit exploration of the nuances. And recent experiences with Brexit and other political hot potatoes show us just how this approach affects public opinion. So don’t be afraid to discuss why a particular topic area is complex and difficult.

Tell stories of the past and of a positive future

And finally: I’ve talked a lot in past posts about telling stories, but an interesting piece of climate change research is that some people respond better to stories comparing the past with the present (i.e. climate change has caused watercourses to be 30% less full than in the 1950s) while others respond better to stories of the future (i.e. climate change will cause watercourse to be 30% less full in 2050). And everyone responds better to positive visions of the future rather than terrifying ones.

We believe that societies need spaces for radical thinking to confront not only the climate-change challenges of the future but also the present-day conditions that create, reinforce, and reproduce vulnerability. […] Visualizing positive futures is meant to inspire—but more importantly, it is meant to guide action and forge the necessary alliances to push for change.”

So if you, your organisation or one of your clients is working on an innovation that involves complex technology, it might be worth taking a minute to consider how to explain it to your audiences, whether internal or external. It could make all the difference to adoption, acceptance and (of course) sales.