Make Complex Graphics Easy to Understand (Part 1 of 2)

By Mike Parkinson, Microsoft MVP and APMP Fellow

Most complex presentations do not need complex graphics. Clear, easy-to-follow content improves understanding, recollection, and adoption. The KISS—Keep It Simple Silly—rule applies to all forms of communication.

However, there are times when illustrating complexity is required. For example, you may want to show that the information or solution you are presenting is complex and, therefore, requires specific experience or expertise to complete. For other presentations, you may have a mixed audience of technical and strategic thinkers.

A complex solution does not need to be confusing. It should be clear, concise, organized, ordered, and easy to understand. Albert Einstein once stated, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Because the confused mind says no, a complex graphic must quickly and clearly communicate the main point (the message). It is our job as presentation professionals to help the audience understand the content.

The following are three methods I use when making a complex slide graphic:
1. Get to the Point
2. Chunk It
3. Connect the Dots

Get to the Point

Summarize your graphic with one, concise message (i.e., headline or takeaway). The main point should be obvious. It should give your audience a reason to care. Provide them with a benefit. Make them want to spend time reviewing your graphic. If the main message is that your solution saves money, speeds delivery and lowers risk, the graphic should clearly show this. It must be blindingly obvious. Never bury the main point. Highlight it through aesthetic choices such as icons, symbols, size, style, color, and positioning.

Chunk It
Chunking breaks complex content into bite-sized, digestible morsels. Group and label similar elements to avoid confusion. For example, arrange your approach into a timeline. Drawing a box around each phase chunks those activities and clarifies when they occur, making the content more approachable. (You are grouping solution elements into labeled “buckets” of information.)

The reason most complex graphics fail is because they are created by the author for the author. They apply their knowledge of the subject to make assumptions about the audience’s proficiency—and often these assumptions are wrong. Instead, see it from your audience’s perspective and how they relate to the subject. Group your content hierarchically. Use labels and titles to categorize similar elements.

Connect the Dots

Prove that you can deliver to the audience your stated benefit by connecting the solution elements to the promised outcomes. For example, use symbols to flag those tools, people, or processes (solution elements) that are responsible for delivering the results (e.g., saving money, speedy delivery and/or lowering risk).

I recommend sketching your ideas before rendering a graphic. Sketches increase objectivity when evaluating your message and method for communicating it because simple drawings are judged more on content than appearance. Rendered graphics are judged by aesthetics before the associated message and method

The following sketch is an example of how I used these three methods to showcase a benefit to my audience.

After your concept is approved, render your graphic in your tool of choice. The following slide was created in PowerPoint. (In my next article, I will share how I made this graphic.)

Clear, compelling communication is a critical success factor. The three methods—Get to the Point, Chunk It, and Connect the Dots—work together to improve communication quality and your win rate. Use them when creating your next complex graphic to deliver a better presentation.

About Mike Parkinson (Microsoft MVP and APMP Fellow):

He is an internationally recognized visual communication and presentation expert, professional speaker, and award-winning author. Mike is one of 16 Microsoft PowerPoint MVPs in the United States. He regularly conducts workshops and creates graphics, presentations, and learning materials for companies like Microsoft, FedEx, Xerox, Dell, and Boeing as well as at learning institutions and organizations.

Mike owns both 24 Hour Company ( and Billion Dollar Graphics ( He authored a popular Do-It-Yourself Billion Dollar Graphics book and is completing his latest book on PowerPoint for educators. Contact Mike at now to learn more about how he can help you hit your goals.

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