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Explaining Technical Concepts to Non-Tech Presentation Audiences
* This blog post was adapted from a chapter in my business data storytelling book, Present Beyond Measure: Design, Visualize, and Deliver Data Stories That Inspire Action. Click the link to learn more and purchase your copy!
Ever notice how most data presentations are like a box of chocolates? You never really know what you're going to get.
Sometimes, it's a delightful treat, and other times, you're stuck with a gooey mess.
And based on my observations from leaders coming to me for data storytelling workshops, they’re experiencing more of the latter.
So, the purpose of this blog post is to equip you with my favorite technique to present complex technical information in data analytics presentations as exciting and satisfying as a classic Whitman's Sampler!
(Well – that might be overpromising, but this will help you create clarity for your audience.)
And that technique is…analogies!
Analogies: Your Secret Explanation Ammunition
Did you notice how I related the book’s topic to something relatable (and munchable) in the real world? And that it referenced the wildly popular catchphrase from the movie “Forrest Gump”?
You probably recognized it instantly; it was an analogy, and analogies are your best friends for getting less technically savvy stakeholders to understand complex concepts.
An analogy is a powerful tool for comprehension, especially during a technical presentation. Think of analogies as a bridge that connects a complex or technical abstract concept to a relatable idea from the real world in the audience's mind.
It is a micro-story, defined as “a comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.
And they’re an effective (and fun) vehicle for helping non-technically savvy stakeholders get on the same page with you and your insights.
Here are the most effective strategies I’ve learned for using analogies to present complex and technical information in your data presentations:
The “Kinda Like” Bridge
Russell Brunson, online marketing guru and author of Expert Secrets, loves to use the “kinda like” bridge to help generate millions of dollars in sales during webinars.
He explains complex ideas by starting with “It's kinda like…” For instance, he simplifies ketosis by saying, “It's kinda like Pac-Man. Chomping on a power pellet gives you a strong boost of lasting energy.”
Brilliant, right? It turns a technical concept into a game we all know and love.
The “Imagine That” Approach
Christina Stathopolous, an analytics expert, takes the “imagine that” approach.
She sets the stage with “imagine that” and paints a vivid picture for the audience.
Phrases like “it's kinda like” and “imagine that” let you process information visually using the power of your imagination.
The “You Know How” Method (My Personal Favorite)
Here's my personal favorite: the “you know how” method. I’ve been using this throughout this post to help you quickly grasp abstract concepts.
One example I often use is explaining the difference between data dashboards and data stories in presentations.
You know how data dashboards are like car dashboards? The idea is that you don't have to be a car mechanic to understand the vital systems of your car and make simple decisions (out of gas – get to the gas station) or weird engine light (take the car to a mechanic).
Data dashboards are the same – simple, one-glance snapshots of your business systems for making simple decisions on your own or take it to an expert (you).
A data story is a journey you take your decision-makers on to lead them to a strategic recommendation; it's a horse of a very different color!
Relate to Personal Interests (Or Play the Pop Culture Card)
When you're running low on analogy inspiration, peek into your audience's interests and hobbies.
Find common ground, especially shared passions.
Does your VP live and breathe baseball? Link the game's rules to how your new advertising platform works.
Got a client who's a foodie? Turn a complex testing scenario into a “recipe” they'll gobble up like a gourmet meal.
Why Analogies Work Well for Explaining Technical Concepts
Analogies are not just creative embellishments; they're the secret sauce to spice up your data presentations.
They transform boring technical jargon into relatable, real-world experiences; it's like turning a snoozy PowerPoint into a Netflix series—and we all know which one we'd rather sit and binge-watch.
As my friend and godfather of digital analytics, Jim Sterne, puts it, “If your stakeholders just don't ‘get it,' you're teaching them the wrong thing.”
Your goal is to help them achieve their goals, not confuse them with jargon. Analogies are your trusty sidekick on this mission.
Explaining Very Large Numbers with Relatable Scale
Sometimes, you'll have to wrangle with mind-boggling numbers in your presentations.
And no, we're not talking about the post-COVID cost of your favorite gadgets.
We're talking about figures that make you go, “Whoa, that's a lotta zeroes!”
But even still, it can be hard for an audience to truly comprehend and appreciate the sheer magnitude of very large numbers they aren’t accustomed to working with.
In her book DataStory, Nancy Duarte suggests four effective ways to make large numbers understandable:
- Size (bigger than a breadbox, a beach house, or the Burj Khalifa)
- Distance (inches, feet, yards, miles, outer space)
- Time (seconds, minutes, days, eons)
- Speed (miles per hour, knots, light years)
These dimensions can help translate all those tough, chewy zeros into something the audience can bite through.
Relating numbers to someone mentally tangible is excellent for creating comparative context for the audience.
And here's a jaw-dropping example to drive the point home: I once heard a panel speaker explain the national income inequality and wealth gap crisis in terms of billionaires.
Now, I “know” a billion is a very large number but couldn’t concretely connect to it. So at first I thought, “what’s the big deal? Seems like billionaires are everywhere.”
But I actually couldn’t really mentally distinguish very much between that and one million. They’re both really big.
So he asked us to imagine earning $1 million per week. Yes please, amiright?
Now, how long would it take you to accumulate $1 billion?
The answer will leave you speechless: you would need to earn $1 million per week for almost 20 years!
I had to scrape my jaw off the floor: he’d helped us create a relatable scale in time to understand the astounding magnitude of a billion dollars.
Now, before you dive into the pool of analogies head first, a word of caution.
Not all analogies are universally known or even relevant to your concept. Be sure your analogy isn't too esoteric, that it's well-known, easy to understand, and the connection to your material is crystal clear.
Otherwise, you might find yourself in the awkward situation of explaining your explanation.
Trust me; that’s not how you want to go “meta” in your meeting.
More Examples of Analogies for Presenting Technical Concepts
Here are other analogies and metaphors that could be useful for explaining technical ideas to non-tech audiences:
Data Lake and Real Lake: Think of a data lake as a vast reservoir where you collect and store data from various sources. Just like a real lake collects water from streams, rivers, and rainfall, a data lake accumulates data from different channels.
Data Warehouse and Library: A data warehouse is like a library where data is organized, indexed, and easily accessible. It's similar to how a library catalog helps you find and retrieve books efficiently.
Data Cleansing and Spring Cleaning: Data cleansing is like the annual Marie Kondo spring cleaning of your house. It involves removing the clutter and ensuring everything is neat and organized. Similarly, in data, it means cleaning up, removing duplicates, and ensuring data quality.
Data Analytics and Detective Work: Data analytics is akin to detective work. Just as detectives gather clues, analyze evidence, and solve mysteries, data analysts collect and analyze data to uncover insights and solve business challenges.
Machine Learning and Self-Driving Cars: Machine learning is like the technology behind self-driving cars. It learns from data to make predictions and decisions, just as self-driving cars use data to navigate roads and make driving decisions.
Data Visualization and Painting: Data visualization is similar to creating a beautiful painting. You use colors, shapes, and layout to convey a message or tell a story, just as artists use their tools to illustrate and concretize emotions and ideas.
Conversion Rate Optimization and Fishing: Imagine conversion rate optimization as fishing. You tweak your bait (website or content) to attract more fish (visitors) and improve your chances of catching (converting) them.
A/B Testing and Taste Testing: A/B testing can be like taste testing a new recipe. You prepare two recipes (A and B), serve them to different groups, and see which one people prefer. Similarly, in A/B testing, you test different versions to see which one works better.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Gardening: SEO is like tending to a garden. You plant seeds (keywords), water and nurture (optimize) your plants, and ensure they get enough sunlight (visibility) to sprout and flourish (rank higher on search engines).
Marketing Funnel and a Restaurant Reservation System: The marketing funnel is similar to a restaurant reservation system.
At the top, you have potential diners (prospects), and as they progress through each stage, they move closer to making a reservation (conversion) at your restaurant (business).
These analogies are just a starting point to bridge the gap between technical concepts and everyday experiences, making it easier for non-technical audiences to grasp complex ideas in the world of data, analytics, data science, and digital marketing.
Final Thoughts on Explaining Technical Concepts to Non-Techie Audiences
I hope you enjoyed this delightfully overstuffed mattress of an analogies blog post.
I believe analogies can become your secret weapon for explaining complex information to more lay audiences.
And to help your audience grasp large-scale numbers, use real-world comparisons like size, distance, time, and speed.
So the next time you're faced explaining technical information or a complex concept in a data presentation, use analogies to bring clarity, understanding, and excitement to your audience.
With the right analogies, you can turn data from a complex puzzle into a captivating idea.
And always keep in mind that, just like with real chocolates, you want your clients to savor every piece, not get lost in a sea of crumpled wrappers.
(Alright, I think we’ve squeezed all the juice from that lemon-oops, doing it again!)
Like this excerpt? Check out my full data storytelling book!
I hope you enjoyed this distilled version of Chapter 6 of my data presentation and storytelling book, Present Beyond Measure: Design, Visualize, and Deliver Data Stories That Inspire Action.
Be sure to check it out and grab your copy to get access to the full data storytelling methodology that thousands of data and marketing practitioners all over the world use to make an impact on their executive audiences!
And if you’re ready to go way deeper for yourself or your team, book me for an immersive workshop that will take you to the data presentation A-Team!