What is easy/what is right: balancing complexity

Photo by Stephanie E. Buck

We’ve all seen the promotional videos/photos/stories that claim to have found the silver bullet for solving poverty. We’ve seen the pieces that reduce global poverty and development challenges to a single issue (for just X dollars per day, you can solve this). We’ve seen the narratives that may seem compelling, but perpetuate power imbalances and unhelpful stereotypes. The list goes on.

We know there’s something wrong there. What remains less clear is how to tell a more complex, realistic story without overwhelming the reader. Maybe sometimes we think people aren’t interested in complexity. Sometimes fear of the donor or fear of public opinion persists, preventing real reflection on failure and other complications.

We can’t let these fears hold us back. And perhaps these fears are even groundless. For example, at my organization’s most recent Executive Committee meeting, we presented some initial findings from one of our research projects. Some of the results were positive, while others were certainly less so. Yet, upon hearing some of these not-so-great findings, they didn’t balk. They were surprised, but the overwhelming reaction was not to run the other direction. Instead, they wanted to learn more. If something wasn’t working, they wanted to know why. And they wanted nuance: if something worked better in one sub-sector than another, they wanted to know why and how, so we could take those insights and learn from them.

On the other end of the fear spectrum, inaccurate or simplistic narratives like Kony 2012 might go viral. However, the backlash against these types of narratives is also increasing. People interested in global development issues at all levels seem to want nuance. And even if they didn’t, out of respect for the people we’re trying to help, and for the sake of truth, we should offer that anyway.

But how to we offer more complex and nuanced insight into the issues we work on?

Well, we can take inspiration from some people who are already doing this .

Practically, we don’t have to expect our audience to become experts after reading one article. But we do have to acknowledge multiple perspectives, and address systemic and individual challenges. We can’t claim to have found the silver bullet to fighting poverty (because we all know there isn’t one).

Here are a few ideas for how to show complexity without overwhelming the reader:

  • Banish jargon
  • Listen to the people we’re trying to help, and letting them speak for themselves.
  • Layer information. Don’t make sweeping generalizations. Do bring the most important information forward to highlight different facets of whatever challenges you’re discussing.
  • Acknowledge the exceptions, caveats, and other relevant perspectives.
  • Write clearly and concisely. Again, the reader doesn’t have to become an expert from a 1,000 word article. But they shouldn’t only hear a single story. For online formats, you can always link to more in-depth reports or articles if the reader is truly interested.
  • Think about doing a series of shorter stories to show more depth. That way, each individual piece can remain short enough to keep the reader/viewer’s attention, while still allowing for nuance and detail.
  • Combine personal stories with evidence-based results. Stories help us connect as human beings. Start with someone’s story as a hook, or use multiple stories throughout. Then back up that story with data that speaks to the complexities and bigger picture. When done well, this can be really powerful.

What other ideas would you add?

Just because balancing complexity isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Finally, just for fun, enjoy this parody of certain development initiatives and the stories behind them (or, what not to do):


Ideas to contribute to the discussion? Please comment below

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