In the previous post we saw that the most important component of credibility is sound content. But that only works if you sound like you know what you’re talking about, and if people can understand what you say. Clarity causes understanding, and understanding promotes trust. Let’s look at the flip side of that statement: when we do not understand what someone is saying, we may either doubt our own intelligence, or we may wonder what they are trying to hide. Which do you think is more likely?
Unfortunately, confusion is usually the order of the day, especially in business communication, as anyone who has ever tried to decode many corporate mission statements has found. And if the topic is technical, good luck with that! Fortunately, there are a number of powerful strategies and techniques you can use to counter these factors and promote crystal clarity.
Three keys to being clear are, language, length and layout.
Speak plainly and use short, common words that anyone can get a grip on.
You may think you’ll sound smarter by dressing up your message in fancy words, especially the many forms of business buzzwords that are so prevalent today. Unfortunately, this tactic can backfire, as demonstrated by an experiment that asked readers to evaluate the intelligence of writers using passages with different word choices. Surprisingly, the writers who used shorter, common words were judged to be more intelligent on average.
Use concrete words. Use concrete words as much as you can without oversimplifying. The definition of concreteness is that it can be felt by one or more of the senses, and this allows the listener to assign more “hooks” for the word in their memory. That’s why you see news programs that will illustrate a story on inflation, for example, by comparing the price of a stick of butter from one year to the next. Charities know they can get far more with a picture of a starving child than with pages of (abstract) statistics about world hunger. This is known as the Mother Teresa Principle: “If I see one, I will act.”
Use their language: Use the listener’s own language and frames of reference if at all possible. For example, if you are dealing with someone from a different company, use terms that are familiar to them, such as industry-specific terms and examples. Or you can wrap your message in some of their initiatives; show them how your idea supports their key goals.
Use analogies and visuals. Anything that makes it more familiar to your listener will be clearer and easier to understand.
Distilled water is perfectly clear because all the impurities are removed. It’s the same with a distilled, concise message. Clear expression begins with clear thinking, and the discipline it takes to try to express your message as concisely as possible will force you to figure out the essence of every message.
Strangely enough, achieving conciseness takes time. Mark Twain once received this telegram from a publisher:
NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.
NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.
Conciseness emerges only after careful thought. If you merely do a “data-dump” of everything you know about a topic for your listener, you’re putting the responsibility for thinking on to them. And if they do your thinking for you, how credible will you be?
Here are a few tips for keeping it concise:
Have a purpose for what you say. Be clear on what you want to accomplish and what you want to say. Be clear in your own mind what your key point is.
Find the core of the idea. In 1992, political operator James Carville told the Clinton campaign that, “If you say three things, you say nothing.” He helped Clinton boil down his key message to one core idea: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Take a moment to think before speaking. Because of the difference in the speed at which we think versus the speed we speak, you will have plenty of time to focus your message even in the second or two that you take before responding. If nothing else, it will certainly make you look more thoughtful when you answer!
Practice. If it’s important enough, take the time to practice what you want to say. You will find yourself becoming clearer with each pass through, especially when someone else listens and tells you which parts are unclear.
One of the best ways to communicate clearly is to provide a transparent structure. A clear structure helps both your listener and you to make sense of your ideas. Think of it this way: if someone handed you books one after another, and asked you to file them in their proper shelves, how quickly could you complete the task if you had to build the shelves simultaneously?
When you make the structure transparent for someone, you are giving them the ready-made shelves in which to store the information, which frees up their working memory capacity to concentrate on the information itself. By giving them the structure, you are in effect adding value to the information by doing part of their work for them.
Start with the headline. What’s the key point you want to be absolutely sure your listener gets? Start with that. You can always add context if necessary. It makes you look decisive and confident, which is credibility-building.
Also, by stating your main idea at the beginning, you provide a general picture in their mind which you then help them fill in with color and detail. Without this picture, it’s like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without referring to the box.
The discipline of thinking through the structure of your arguments will make you more credible because it will expose gaps in your logic or evidence—gaps you can fill before someone else exposes them for you.
Other articles in this series:
 “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”, Daniel M. Oppenheimer. Applied Cognitive Psychology 2006.