Use a Contextual Model to Communicate Clearly

Posted by Kristin Arnold on July 9, 2018

When a leader is trying to communicate a complex idea in a simple form, a “contextual model” can help.  A contextual model can be a simple 2×2 matrix (think Covey’s important vs. urgent quandrant model), a pyramid (think the food industry pyramid and Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs)..and the list goes on!  In fact, many years ago, Charlie Tombazian and I presented a session at the International Association of Facilitator’s Convention on process models that facilitators use to help our clients make better decisions!  I still haul out those models from time to time!

So why do contextual models work?  I asked my colleague, Neen James, who is truly a super-model!  Yes, she has amazing style, but more importantly, she thinks, sleeps and breathes contextual models!  She believes that, “Models are amazing tools for capturing attention because their visual nature appeals to so many different learning styles.  In any given group, you’ve got people who are analytical and others who are visual.  A contextual model speaks to both the left and right brain hemispheres. It provides the information analytics need to make a decision and it lays out that information in such a way that it makes sense for those who process information visually.”

Now that we know that contextual models work, how do you go about creating your own when one of those from a book (check out the 2×2 Matrix) won’t work or don’t exist?  Here’s Neen’s process outlined in her latest book, Attention Pays:

  1.  Choose Your Shape.  When you think of the idea you want to communicate, what shape comes to mind?  Squares, circles, triangles?  If you are sharing a process, maybe that feels like a ladder, triangle, or set of arrows?  Maybe it’s about relationships; consider circles or a Venn diagram.  Perhaps you want to compare and contrast ideas? A square as a quadrant model or an x/y-axis model might work.
  2. Choose Your Main Point.  Be very clear on one big message or one process that you must communicate.  You don’t want to complicate your model with mixed messages!  For example, do you want to outline steps in a process, compare information, demonstrate characteristics, show relationships between items, or provide outcomes?
  3. Choose Your Movement.  Great contextual models also help the viewer to identify where they are on the model (think of a map with the star saying “You are here!”) and where they may want to go.  Movement in a model can be shown with an x/y axis, arrows, or even shading.
  4. Choose Your Words.  To ensure your model looks and sounds elegant, pay special attention to the words you use.  Are you using formal or casual language?  Are you using action-oriented words or descriptive words?  Neen calls this your “language palette” – and she is insistent that it needs to be consistent!  For example, if you are looking at t-shirts in the store, you can buy small, medium, large, and humungous, right?  No! In this sentence, humungous is not the word you expected to hear.  If you thought it was extra-large, you are correct!  Make sure the words you use in your model make sense to the audience.

The next time you need to present a conceptual idea to your team or provide an update of your project to your organization, consider creating a contextual model.  You may find the attention it draws will give you just the lift you need to be able to clearly communicate your message!


KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CPF, CSP is a high-stakes meeting facilitator and professional panel moderator.  She’s been facilitating teams of executives and managers in making better decisions and achieving greater results for over 20 years.  She is the author of the award-winning book, Boring to Bravo: Proven Presentation Techniques to Engage, Involve and Inspire Audiences to Action.

Recent Articles:

Have a Conversation About Your Team’s Conversational Style

Get More Done, Be Less Stressed: 5 Tips to Increase Productivity

Creating Confidence In Pursuit of Productivity


Skip to content