Complexity, clarity, simplicity: Storytelling in global development

This is a blog post I originally wrote for and you can read it there if you'd like.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” -Albert Einstein

How do you tell a complex story clearly? What if that story belongs to someone else? This is the very essence of development communications: telling other people’s stories.

I recently talked to three different communications professionals working in the development field (a public relations associate, a videographer and a photojournalist) about how they communicate complex stories about other people without oversimplifying. Their answers illustrated a model of communication in which stories must be simplified, to some extent, in order to make them engaging and clear to the reader or viewer.

I like to think of these three ideas as a gradient, with complexity at one end, simplicity at the other and clarity somewhere in between. The challenge is finding the right place on this gradient for a particular audience. Inevitably, you have to simplify some of the story, usually by leaving things out, to retain the audience’s attention.

But be wary of oversimplifying, which could, among other things, mislead the audience and deny the dignity of the people in the story.

As an illustration, here is Carine Umuhumuza, a former communications associate at the Enough Project, describing how she communicates about conflict, mass violence and genocide in East Africa without oversimplifying.

“We work really closely with the policy analysts to make sure none of the substance is lost, and really focus on making sure jargon is eliminated. We also work hard to make sure we link the threads for our audiences and connect the ideas and points of our work to things they can relate to.

At the base of our work is telling the stories of families, women, men and children whose lives have been severely impacted by a series of events – bad governance, evil rulers, etc. That is something we can all relate to: we all understand loss, fear and the desire for basic human rights.”

Umuhumuza’s comments illustrate the Complexity-Clarity-Simplicity Model nicely. First, jargon is often unneeded and even detrimental. It creates unnecessary complexity, and removing it can clarify the story without oversimplifying.

Another easy way to add depth to a simple story is by hyperlinking. For online communications, linking to articles with more information is a great way to let the audience decide how much complexity they want. Given this possibility, the actual communication can serve as an entry point into a topic, rather than attempting to explain a story in depth.

I wanted to get some other perspectives on this question, so I also asked Charity:Water’s in-house filmmaker, Jamie Pent, about how she tells other people’s stories in a clear way:

“The audience that watch our videos are anywhere from five- to ninety-year-olds, so we have to make sure anyone can understand the message. Thankfully, the very basic concept we need to get across is that 800 million people don’t have access to clean water and you, the viewer, can make a difference. It really is that simple.

Obviously, things are far more complicated than that when you dig deeper. Internally, we have teams that work with the local partners to decide what water source is best for this region, where we can dig a well, how many water points in an area, the cost of the water point, etc. But for the purposes of the video, all we need to explain is that people need water and here’s how you can help.

The challenge for me is how to tell this story in a new way that will engage new viewers and loyal fans alike. Every place I’ve travelled to so far has been incredibly unique with as diverse stories as there are people, so it hasn’t been too difficult to find inspiration for how to tell the stories.”

It seems that, for Pent and Charity:Water, the clarity sweet spot is much simpler than it is for the Enough Project. Obviously their audiences and the stories they tell are quite different.

Knowing the specific sweet spot for your audience, and the goal of the communication, is key. Are you trying to raise awareness about specific conflicts and policies, like the Enough Project? Are you trying to raise money for a certain program? Are you trying to explain what your organisation does as a whole?

Phil Moore, a Nairobi-based photojournalist, offers a unique perspective on the question of simplicity. I asked him about how he tells a complex story with just an image:

“One of the advantages of living in the region where I work is that I am often afforded more time to spend on stories, rather than simply “dropping in” when a story is big in the news. For example in eastern Congo in 2012, I had spent months covering the M23 rebellion before it really made it big in the international news.

Being primarily a photographer, I often have little control on exactly how reductionist the associated article is, but by working for publications that tend to do quality coverage, one can predict how one’s work will be presented.

I would also argue that at times my work can be presented in a “simplified” manner, but depending on audience type. If I feel I have done in-depth work on a subject—and the reportage is there—then I don’t necessarily have a problem with a “simpler version” of that work being presented in a publication that is not going to dedicate the space to a full story. Whilst I lament the general superficial nature of many publications’ coverage of the region, I also recognize that many people simply are not interested in these issues.

So if I can present a basic version of the issue and it inspires someone to read more about it elsewhere, and get engaged in a subject that they were previously uninterested in or simply did not know about, then that is fantastic. At times, it’s also possible to focus on a particular microcosm of a story and present its complexities through a narrower angle that people who do not have in-depth knowledge of a subject can understand and engage with.”

Like Moore says, simplifying a story is not always a bad thing – in fact, it’s often necessary. However, the ways in which the story is simplified are not insignificant. When news outlets aren’t willing to dedicate a huge amount of space to a story, the best development communicators can do may be to simplify very carefully. The backlash against a poorly-told or overly-simplified story can be tremendous.

The communicator’s job is to find the balance between complexity and simplicity that allows them to accurately tell the story in a manner the audience can clearly understand.

A few important and practical lessons emerge from these interviews: remove unnecessary jargon, hyperlink to contextual information and know your purpose and audience. Finally, accept some level of simplification as the price of getting the information out there.

Daniel Lombardi is a writer, photographer and filmmaker who produces creative media for humanitarian organisations. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

All content created by Daniel Lombardi. Copyright 2017.