JS Tip 263: From the Communication Workshops: Elephants and Taxonomies

We appreciate your questions and suggestions.

In a recent workshop, Jeff Cobb of Wells Fargo asked, “How can we explain complex ideas in simple ways?”

A wonderful question. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., voiced a similar concern:

I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.1

So how do we make the complex simple?

The Elephant Joke

You know the old joke: “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.”

The joke addresses taxonomy, the act of classifying—dividing, breaking—groups into component parts.

We can make complex ideas simple (or simpler) by breaking them into their component parts. We—the writers, the communicators—identify those parts.

You can break a complex project into simpler parts:

  1. Preparation
  2. Execution
  3. Follow-up

You can break a complex sales proposal into simpler parts:

  1. The costs
  2. The advantages
  3. The process

You can break a complex explanation of government into simpler parts:

  1. The legislative
  2. The judicial
  3. The executive

Next week, we’ll address principles for the process. Things to watch out for. Things to include.

Let us know your questions and suggestions. Seriously. We love this stuff.


1 Darrell Harmon shared this quotation with us a long, long time ago. Thank you, Darrell.