complex selling

The Art of Simplicity: What Does It Take to Sell a Complex Idea?

I’ve been looking at nice watches since the Rolex my father gave me tragically fell into the lake in 1988. I’ve always wanted to replace that extravagant graduation gift, but with four kids and 12 grandchildren, it’s hard to justify spending that kind of money on something I really don’t need. But I like to look.

This explains why I wandered into a store filled with expensive shiny things yesterday. While looking at a watch (that I’m sure would somehow make me as appealing as the celebrity spokesperson), I asked the sales guy a question that has always puzzled me about watches: “What’s the deal with Swiss movement? Why does the ‘movement’ matter?”

His response: “It’s like car engines. You take a 350…”

I tuned out. I had no clue what the watch salesman was talking about because I don’t know the first thing about engines. Now there were two topics I’m confused about: engines and Swiss movement. The seller’s idea to use an analogy, or what I call “word pictures,” was good, but his execution was poor. To help a customer “see” something they don’t understand, you have to find out what they relate to.

For example, a few months ago I was talking to a participant in one of my workshops when he pulled out a vapor cigarette. To strike up a conversation, I said, “So what’s up with vaping? Is it the same as smoking a cig?” (as if I just smoked a pack of cigarettes with a few European hipsters’ friends wearing skinny jeans).

He explained it to me instantly and brilliantly: “You ever tried turkey bacon?”

“Yeah, sure,” I answered.

He said, “Not as good right?”

I agreed. “Yeah it’s kind of like bacon, but I would much rather have the real thing.”

He just nodded.

Two key things happened that drew me in: I was the center of the story, and the guy I was talking with had effectively used a word picture.

By drawing on what I understood, I was the central character in the story. And when the listener is the focus of any story, they continue to listen. The watch salesman was the center of the engine story; he liked engines, so that was his go-to analogy. But he didn’t bring me into the story, so he didn’t spark my interest. I remained confused, and what was complicated never got simplified.

So, what if the watch salesman had made me the hero of his pitch? Here’s how the conversation could have gone.

Him: “You like engines?”

Puzzled, I would respond: “Is that the thing under the hood?”

This would be the opportunity for the watch seller to try again: “What about Champagne?”

“Not really,” I’d respond. Even though my answer would be no, I’d still be intrigued because he’s asking me about me. Plus the focus is still on the word picture, so I’m leaning in.

The watch salesman tries a third time: “What about bourbon?”

Bingo! I do love a good bourbon.

So the watch salesman would continue: “As you know, whiskey can’t be called bourbon if it isn’t made in Kentucky and following specific standards about how to craft great whiskey. Same is true for any watch described with Swiss movement. Only watches made in Switzerland, complying with their high standards for building the best watches, can advertise Swiss movement.”

And I would’ve smiled and thought: “Cool. I didn’t know that, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks, watch guy!”

If this had been the scenario I’d met in the watch store, I’d have a Rolex on my wrist right now, and the watch guy would have a big, fat commission in his pocket. Why? Because the fictitious scenario watch guy does something critical: He dials into the right analogy and leverages something I already understand to explain something I don’t understand.

As Donald Miller explains in his book Building A StoryBrand, we are all overwhelmed with information. Because of that, our brain tries to burn as few calories as possible processing information. When you apply that to how we communicate, one thing becomes clear: For our messages to be heard and understood, we must fit within the customer’s frame of reference or we will lose the listener.

What can’t be avoided when attempting to explain a complicated concept is that someone must struggle. Either you will struggle to explain a foreign idea to the listener, or the listener will labor to understand what you’re trying to communicate. If it’s the latter, most of the time the customer will just walk away like I did, thinking: “What do watches have to do with car engines?”

If it’s the former, you’re going to need to employ the right word pictures.

Here are a few ideas to get you started on building compelling word pictures that bring simplicity to complex selling.

Step #1. Figure out your most important concepts.

If they’re difficult to understand, rank them in terms of how essential they are to selling your solution.

Step #2. Set aside time to develop three- to five-word pictures for your most critical but complex concepts.

Why so many? Some people hate sports analogies but love cars. Some hate cars and sports but love cooking (or wine, or music, or politics). Therefore, develop a few word pictures that will appeal to every type of customer.

Step #3. Lastly, test it.

Some of the best word pictures fall flat when delivered live — even if they feel like winners in your head. Take a tip from great comedians and test your material on your friends. Then, you can refine your analogies as needed, so they always hit home.

This isn’t an easy task, but the best communicators work on their craft. If you invest the time, you will quickly build a library of compelling word pictures. Like a comedian who has a one-liner for every heckler, you will be prepared to easily win over the toughest customers.

As Co-founder and CEO, Tom’s primary role is to create content that helps people live, sell, and serve more effectively. Find him on LinkedIn


  1. Chris White on March 8, 2019 at 5:16 pm

    Great article Tom. Thanks. And nice 1-2-3 step advice to put into action. I’m going to work on that here at CAST.

    • Mike Hall on March 10, 2019 at 11:15 pm

      Very thought provoking. I love analogies, word pictures to help others understand… this article drives home the point that analogies that do NOT resonate with the listener leave them as confused, maybe even more. I’m going to try and have a plan B and C…

  2. Scott Lamphere on March 9, 2019 at 11:47 am

    Love this!! So many of our clients (especially the young entrepreneurs) struggle with describing their brand or sharing their 44 sec elevator speech to draw folks in.
    This will help!!

  3. Adam Compton on May 8, 2019 at 11:07 pm

    Big fan of word pictures, analogies, and building value with business stakeholders using their needs as the center of the story. “If I’m thinking of this right, you are probably worried about…” They often say “yeah, but it’s really more about XYZ” – and I’ve got my basis for their problems.

  4. Sam Loyd-Janlov on June 7, 2019 at 8:50 pm

    Tom, you’re gooood. This is the first company blog that I have enjoyed reading. Ever. Keep the articles coming. Well done.

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