Career & Success

Simplify! How to Communicate Complex Ideas Simply and Effectively

In this episode, Frances Frei shares why simple communication is the key to moving others to action.

October 03, 2023

You said it. But did they hear it? For Frances Frei, communication is about saying things simply enough for an audience to truly understand.

As a professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, Frei knows that shaping culture within organizations requires communicating in ways that influence how people think and act. The problem for many leaders, she says, is that when we “understand something deeply, we describe it in a complicated way. If you want broad influence and persuasion, we have to understand it really deeply. And then describe it in a simple and compelling enough way that others can take action.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Frei and host Matt Abrahams explore strategies for simpler communication, building and maintaining trust, and celebrating diverse perspectives within our teams. They also discuss takeaways from Frei’s latest book, Move Fast and Fix Things: The Trusted Leaders’ Guide to Solving Hard Problems.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: When it comes to change and persuasion, we must think deeply, but communicate simply. Welcome to Think Fast, talk Smart, the podcast. I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Today I am super excited to be joined by Francis Frei, who is Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard Business School. Francis served as Uber’s Senior Vice President of Leadership and Strategy, along with Anne Morriss. Francis hosts the Fixable podcast. And together, Anne and Francis wrote Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You and their new book, Move Fast and Fix Things: The Trusted Leader’s Guide to Solving Hard Problems. Welcome, Francis. I have enjoyed getting to know you over the last few years and I look so forward to our conversation today.

Frances Frei: Oh, I’m so thrilled to be here, Matt. Thank you for inviting me.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. So let’s get started. You study and advocate for the value and importance of trust in leadership. Can you share some strategies and tactics leaders can use to build and support trust?

Frances Frei: Yeah, so the first thing is to realize that many of the sayings we hear are not true. So it takes a long time to build. You lose it in an instant, it can never be rebuilt. None of those statements are true. My first strategic advice is treat trust like you treat everything else you want to build, understand it’s component parts, build it up. If something happens and it gets wobbly, go back in and shore up the part that got wobbly. You don’t have to shore up the rest of it, just the part that got wobbly. So treat it as something that you build and let go of all of the myths around it.

Matt Abrahams: So it sounds to me like we need to think of trust as something that’s ongoing, that we’re constantly monitoring and measuring and making sure that it’s the level we wish it to be, and if not, we dive right in and fix it. Is that right?

Frances Frei: I would say is that when you are earning trust, you can think about other things and anytime you have skeptics of one source or another, treat that with precision and urgency to go in and shore up what was in the place and then get it back up to humming along and then I think you don’t have to worry about it quite as much anymore.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. And you talked about the different components, so I’d love for you to describe for us your trust triangle, what it is and how we can use it. And I want to follow up on what you just said as well. When you notice that trust is weaker than you want it, what are some of the things you can do to dive in and work on it?

Frances Frei: Terrific. Essentially the component parts are authenticity, logic and empathy. And what that means is that I am more likely to earn your trust. You are more likely to trust me if you simultaneously experience my authenticity, my logic, and my empathy. If you are blocked from experiencing any one of those three, you’re not going to trust me. That’s when we say it gets wobbly. That’s when we have skeptics. We’re trusted most of the time. So authenticity, logic and empathy are cooking, they’re going, but every single time trust breaks down between individuals, between any stakeholders, between organizations. Anytime it breaks down, we have always been able to trace it back to one of these three and then we get to go get to work on which one it is because you’ll find that the prescriptions are very different for the three of them. So we really have to get that matching right.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really helpful to have that rubric or key available. And it strikes me, Francis, that reflection is really important in this. A lot of us, myself included, when I feel trust is at risk, I get frustrated and I feel like I’m doing everything I should. Why don’t these people trust me? It sounds like I have to take a step back and really reflect on what’s happening, look at the three that you’ve mentioned and then try to figure out where it is so I can at least make some adjustments.

Frances Frei: Yeah, I’d say, Matt, you gave away a little bit of a tell that you might have an empathy wobble. I’m doing everything right. Why don’t they trust me? That’s a pretty classic empathy wobble. Here’s what I would say. I wonder what it is about my communication that’s getting in the way of them. See how I just flipped it back? Because when people say we have to be self-reflected, I don’t always know how to do it, but I know how to do what I just did with you, which is get curiosity from the other person’s perspective.

Matt Abrahams: I love it. Thank you. Not only have you helped me, but you’ve demonstrated what we can all do for ourselves and for others, and thank you critically important to take the time to reflect and then to think about how you can reverse the situation to help give the insight that you need. Many of those listening work for organizations that are in various stages of implementing de and i, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Based on your experience, what are some of the best ways to implement, assess and reinforce de and I programs?

Frances Frei: So we have found that the best way is to think about the letters d, e, and I and change the sequence. So the most important of these three letters is I, it’s inclusion. It’s the one that should be done first when we get inclusion, right? Diversity and equity often follow, but many times I see organizations get diversity, right and equity and inclusion may or may not follow. So I think the first thing is to realize that the focus should be on inclusion and now we have a very specific understanding of how to accelerate inclusion in any organization, but the crisp answer to the question is focus on inclusion and you’re going to go at a much faster pace and get to a much higher place.

Matt Abrahams: Great. I love the idea of starting with inclusion. Can you give a little more detail into the specifics of what inclusion looks like? Are there stages and steps we can pay attention to?

Frances Frei: Yes, indeed. So there’s four stages of it and the stages are safe, welcome, celebrated, championed. The way to think about it is that each of us brings magnificent difference to the table. You’re at Stanford, I’m at Harvard, and then we could then list another 20 differences between us and they’re magnificent. The way to think about inclusion is that despite any difference that we’re bringing to the table, we have to set the condition so that each of us feels safe. Once we’ve achieved safety and only once we’ve achieved safety, we graduate to welcome, which is a lighter and lovelier thing that happened. But don’t worry about welcome if you don’t have safety. Once we have achieved safe and welcome, then we want to start celebrating one another for our uniqueness. And I think this is the part that matters instinctually, we often dwell on what we have in common.

We look for the common ground and that sounds so good. The problem is the more difference we have, the less common we have, and everything that you and I have in common is a little redundant. I want to know how do you think about the world differently than how I think about the world? That’s when we are both collectively going to be better off. So we want to learn the practice of celebrating uniqueness and we want to celebrate uniqueness in one another’s presence, but also in one another’s absence. And we champion people when I am invited into a room, for example, that maybe others aren’t invited into and I speak on their behalf, I’m championing them. And so it goes safe, welcome, celebrated, champion. And that’s what we talk about is how do we move people up the inclusion dial without moving anyone else down the inclusion dial? And that’s if I’d say in 2023 when there’s a lot of controversy around d e, I think much of it can be found in that concept. We’re afraid of moving some people up at the expense of moving others down, and so we have to be clever in how we do this.

Matt Abrahams: I really appreciate that articulation of the different steps. It really helped me to focus on the different strategies and communication approaches I would take depending on where we are. What I do to build a sense of safety is very different than what I do when I’m celebrating. I

Frances Frei: Love that.

Matt Abrahams: I think it’s important for us to realize that it’s a whole toolkit we need. It’s not just one big approach. I want to turn our attention to your new book, move Fast and Fix Things. You and Anne, your co-author and co-host on your podcast and wife strive to accelerate excellence in organizations by helping them, as you say, build and learn quickly while also avoiding costly mistakes. You do this essentially by providing a playbook for how to fix things fast. And you represent this methodology based on a weekday calendar. Can you walk us through the five steps in your playbook? Essentially walk us through Monday through Friday.

Frances Frei: We’ve organized the book by days of the week. Monday, identify your real problem. We’re often presented with the symptoms, but we got to trace back to what the real underlying cause is. So it’s identification day, Tuesday, whatever your problem is. If it involves human beings, trust is broken. Rebuild trust at the center of your problem Wednesday when you’re looking for how to do all the other things you have to do in addition to rebuilding trust, well, you want to go out and get as many gorgeous new perspectives as you can. So we call it make new friends, but really deliberately go and find people who don’t think like you. What we often say when people gather around the table, which perspective is missing? Look for who’s not at the table and go and invite them in. So Wednesday is make new friends. Thursday your favorite day I believe is storytelling day, which is whatever awesome solutions you’ve come up Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

If you don’t communicate it well, it’s as if you didn’t come up with an awesome solution. So we really focus on how to tell a great story and then once you’ve done Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, now you have license to go as fast as you can. So we call the book Move Fast and Fix Things. It’s really a counter to move fast and break things that Mark Zuckerberg made famous, but many people really put out at least implicitly. You can either go fast or you can take care of people, one or the other. In our mind they gave speed a bad name. We find if you do it this way, you can go faster when you fix things than if you broke things. But you can’t do the speed day any earlier than Friday. You actually have to go through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then you’re in a position to go as fast as you can.

Matt Abrahams: I really appreciate you breaking that down. The background work you do allows you to go quickly obviously, and this is not going to surprise you or any of our listeners. I want to linger a little longer on Thursday. I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask. When you tell your stories, do you have a particular structure or way of formulating those stories to really have them provide impact?

Frances Frei: I like the question. So the first thing is that for us, stories have a past, present and future and it’s really important for us to be super deliberate about each one. So when we talk about how the good old days, it’s important to honor what happened in the past, both the good of it and the bad of it because it might’ve been good old days for some and not for others. Hence, we need to change. So honor the past both sides of honor for the present, very few of us want to change unless we have to. And so we need a super clear and compelling change mandate. Why do I have to change now? Can I change next week? What about next month? Next quarter would be next year would be more convenient. All of a sudden it’s just in the ever, ever distant future.

So why do I have to change now? The joke we often make is that if you’re a retailer and Walmart opens up next door, super clear, super compelling, well, we have to be that clear and that compelling in our story of why now for this change and then the future, which is okay, you want us to change to what? And there’s two aspects of the future that we find to be super necessary. It’s got to be rigorous. You can’t describe some fantastical thing and it has to be optimistic. So people are not going to follow us if you’re going to like, oh, we got to go to the future and it’s going to be grim. Nobody’s getting behind you, but nor are people getting behind us when we’re like, come on, it’s going to be great. And we’re like, why is it going to be great? Oh, it just is not going to work. So we find that honor the past have a clear and compelling change mandate and a rigorous and optimistic way forward that provides the necessary architecture for telling a great story, telling a great change story. And I guess that’s what I’m saying is that this change goes from yesterday to tomorrow.

Matt Abrahams: That structure of past, present future is one that you can see in lots of very motivational presentations and stories that people tell. And I appreciate you breaking it down and the tone with which you deliver it as you mentioned there is also important. It needs to be optimistic. It needs to be motivational and incentivize people to want to strive for it. So I appreciate that structure very much. I’m a huge fan of structure and the past, present future structure I think is ideal for what you’re describing. I want to keep going though on this, you write that the foundation of persuasive communication, communication that will change the way people think and act is to understand something so deeply that you can describe it simply. Can you unpack that for us?

Frances Frei: I love these questions. So I find that when people describe things in simple terms, it’s either because they understood it so deeply that they can describe it that way and that will move me, or they understood it superficially and only one of those is going to move me to action. If I can say there are three components of trust, there are authenticity, logic, and empathy. I’m now describing that very simply. Well, I can do that because I understand it so deeply now, more often than we would like. When people understand something deeply, they use a very complicated way to describe it. So I understand it deeply. I describe it in a complicated way. The problem is you then speak to just a very few people, only the people that can also participate. So if you want broad influence, if you want to have broad persuasion, we have to understand it really deeply and then describe it in a simple and compelling enough way that others can take action and to me so that others can take action in our absence. And that’s where the simplicity part comes in.

Matt Abrahams: That’s very clear. Those who’ve listened in before have heard my favorite saying that came from my mother, although I’m sure she didn’t originate it. Tell me the time, don’t build me the clock. And I think that fits well with what you’re saying is you have to understand how to build the clock, but not everybody wants to know how you built it. They just want to know the time and they want to align with that. So thank you. I am curious if you can talk a bit about emotion and persuasion though.

Frances Frei: Yeah. So first of all, I will just say that we think that emotions are underused and there’s almost like I’ve heard so many people give advice, don’t be so emotional, contain your emotions. And I find that to not be correct in most instances. I want people to bring more emotion. Emotion is like the sanding that we can then come and paint on top of emotion really makes us absorptive. So I want us to bring our emotion, but I want us to be able to harness them and use them correctly. To me, not only does emotion make us three dimensional instead of two dimensional, but I think we have greater absorptive capacity in its presence.

Matt Abrahams: I love a good analogy and I love the notion of emotion is the sanding you do before you paint and it makes things more absorbent. That’s lovely. And I think that is a perfect way to envision the role of emotion in communication and persuasion. Last thing I’ll ask you about communication. You’ve been around organizations a lot, you studied them. What are one or two of the biggest communication mistakes that organizations make?

Frances Frei: We mistake having said it for your having heard it, I told them as if that matters. I am so uninterested in giving participation trophies in life, but really in this aspect of life, I want to know: did they hear it?

Matt Abrahams: I think that is so important and I see that play out in my own personal life as a parent, as a partner, as well as a teacher. And I think all of us can imagine circumstances where, hey, we’ve said it, so therefore it’s done without really checking for did somebody hear us and what could I have done better to make it clearer? So thank you for identifying those mistakes and highlighting how we need to address them. Before we end, Francis, I’d like to ask you three questions. Are you up for that?

Frances Frei: I’d love it.

Matt Abrahams: So my first question for you is your book talks about five days, Monday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday aren’t on that list. What are we doing on those days?

Frances Frei: Oh, very importantly, the week has two days of rest and recovery, and that’s how everything should work. You do the work and then you have the rest and recovery. As a former athlete, I knew that my muscles were built while I was resting, so I had to do the workout, but the recovery is when I would actually show the gains. And so the weak has a weak end, and I think it’s a really important metaphor.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. I find myself, and I know many others, use the weekend to catch up on work, and what I’m hearing you say is take the weekend to rejuvenate.

Frances Frei: No, you just substituted the recovery for an extra day and that’s going to catch up on you. That’s going to catch up on you.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Question number two, who’s a communicator that you admire and why?

Frances Frei: Well, my revealed behavior is that I consume a great deal of comedians. Standup comedy is just something, it’s very difficult for me to imagine 48 hours going by without me consuming some standup comedy. So I’m a connoisseur of that. And I think because they get the simply deeply, they understand an observation so deeply that they can describe it simply how many reps it took them to do that, like a hundred, 500, a thousand. So they also honor the craft of communication, which is, it’s hard to go deeply and then to get it. And I might even say that comedians are deeply simply funny, and that’s like the art form. I’m trying to understand things deeply so I can describe it simply. They’re doing that and then they’re also making it funny. Wow. That’s like another level.

Matt Abrahams: It is amazing to me the depth of experience, practice and work that comedians put in. I have a cousin who’s doing very well as a comedian, and I’ve interviewed several, and you’re absolutely right. And I like how you phrased it though, the simply, deeply funny. That’s the crux of what they do.

Frances Frei: And if I could give a shout-out to the two comedians I find myself listening to over and over again, so I already know what they’re going to say and I still want to listen to it. And that’s saying something, it’s Wanda Sykes and Kathleen Madigan. And I think these two cover a spectrum that’s probably wide enough for your listeners that they’re going to appreciate it, at least one of them.

Matt Abrahams: I enjoy both of them. I’ll let you know a little secret, Frances. One of the things I do as part of my nightly ritual to help me relax and turn off my brain is every night before I go to bed, I’ll listen to a five-minute comedy routine, and both of those comedians are in my playlist. My go-to is Robin Williams. I have just an admiration for his ability to be spontaneous. Alright, question number three. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Frances Frei: I think intention, which is what’s the point of my communication? And again, no participation trophy. My intention is to influence the culture as an example. So I think intention is the first part of it. Two is determination to do the hard work. If we go to our favorite standup comedians who really Jerry Seinfeld is still practicing four or five nights a week, and you know how many CEOs I see go give a really important talk after two reps. So intention, hard work, whatever that word is. But we, let’s refine it and let’s honor it as something that can get better and better and better. And then the third one I’m going to say is joy, which is communication. You mentioned earlier that communication is thought of as a necessary evil. I want to reframe that for people. Communication is the thing that is going to let us unlock unimaginable progress. So let’s look at it as the gift that it really is.

Matt Abrahams: Communication truly is a huge unlock, and thank you for sharing those three ingredients, absolutely critical. That tenacity piece is really, really important. Well, Francis, thank you. I knew we would have a great conversation. I appreciate you introducing us to concepts around trust, around Culture de and I and how to fix things fast. Good luck with your new book. Thank you so much.

Frances Frei: Thank you very much, Matt and I get why you have a podcast on communication. You are a beautiful communicator.

Matt Abrahams: Why, thank you.

You’ve been listening to another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This podcast was produced by Jenny Luna, Kevin Patel, and me Matt Abrahams, with special thanks to Podium Podcast company. To find more episodes, visit our website at or find us wherever you get your podcasts, including YouTube. For more business-related content, follow the Business School on social media @Stanfordgsb. You can also find the podcast and follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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