When was the last time you read a fascinating report, learnt about an intriguing innovation or studied emerging trends in your field?
I am sure that the well-read among us might even chime in, “a few minutes ago”.
Now when was the last time you read something important—a business paper, a political issue, or a medical breakthrough—only once and immediately understood the material without needing to re-read sections multiple times to grasp the meaning?
That may be difficult to recall.
Or perhaps you recently listened to a speech or watched a video which lacked a coherent structure.
You are not alone.
The reality we face is that we are losing our ability to communicate effectively.
An interesting paradox now arises: The information overload which marks this digital age has made our attention spans shorter, yet our communications have become more ambiguous.
So some advertisements leave us puzzled about their underlying messages; leaders rant about nothing; and businesses perfect the art of corporate-speak, (“leveraging our competencies for optimal effectiveness“).
The main dilemma in communication today is threefold: simplicity, brevity and clarity.
“Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.”
Simple doesn’t mean simplistic.
Therefore, choose simple and familiar words to express ideas as often as possible. Resist the allure of complex words or the interesting ring to unusual expressions. Your audience may be an educated bunch but remember that comprehension differs from person to person.
As a bonus, know that in the business environment, simplicity of thought or action encourages engagement.
If you cannot break down any issue to its simplest form, you really don’t understand your topic. People may even think that you are using complicated, even redundant words to mask your lack of understanding on the issue. As a leader, your credibility will be questioned. At work, you will be ridiculed.
Let’s take a cue from the late Peter Seeger and strive for simplicity.
In ancient times, when King Philip II of Macedon threatened the Spartans thus:
“If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground”.
The Spartans simply replied: “If”.
Philip II heeded the veiled threat. Other accounts reported that neither he nor his son, Alexander the Great, moved to capture Sparta.
Even though it may not always be practical to deliver witty, monosyllabic responses, note that no one will complain that a speech, presentation, or any type of communication is brief, if it is meaningful.
To be brief, we’ll need to understand the subject-matter thoroughly and then strip away the fluff to deliver.
And that is no easy feat.
It’s no wonder that while giving speeches, we ramble on while we try to ‘arrange’ our thoughts to create compelling arguments.
Or when we write, we begin with a long preamble and then bury the important bits in the middle because well, that’s how we were taught in school.
But we can re-train ourselves to become brief by eliminating unnecessary words and getting straight to the point. By doing so, our arguments will become more convincing and our influencing skills, sharper.
Case in point, the painfully long statement below:
Due to budgetary cuts ordered by our new Management and considering limited finances, we regret to inform you that despite the assurance given at our last meeting, we will only be able to manufacture 300 widgets. However, as a sign of goodwill, because we cherish your business, we wish to offer you a twenty-percent discount on the items. We sincerely apologise for inconveniences that our decision might cause you and wish you all the best in your endeavours. (78 words)
Below is the abridged version which conveys the same sentiment, but without the fluff:
Due to new budgetary cuts, we regretfully inform you that we can now only manufacture 300 widgets. However, because we value your business, we wish to offer you a twenty-percent discount on the items. We sincerely apologise for inconveniences caused. (40 words)
Bad news will always be bad news. Sugar-coating the inevitable doesn’t make it any less disappointing. State the information politely. Provide an explanation; express regret, a solution, or both; and move on.
3) Clarifying our information
– Marty Rubin, writer
This point is closely linked to simplicity, but note that clarity is achieved when you do two things:
A) Underscore your main points
These should preferably be statements/sentences which stand out. Use specific and concrete examples and avoid vague or abstract terms.
It is important to ask yourself what the main purpose of your message is. Do you want to inform, refute, confirm or persuade?
“Let us address these issues. The first step…”.
Your CTA is the action you want your recipient/audience to take. You should mention your request at least twice; one of which must be at the end of your communication, because of short attention spans.
By adhering to these three beacons of effective communication, we can cut through the ‘noise’ in the digital age and deliver relevant content which will trigger results.
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*Style Guide For Business And Technical Communication: Tools for Highly Effective Communication (Fifth Edition).