Why You Aren’t as Clear as You Should Be

confusedAs I’ve written before, clarity is one of the most important factors in persuasive communication. It gives you credibility and ensures that your intent is transferred as accurately and efficiently as possible. So why can it be so hard to achieve?

The core idea of clarity is that if you want to be clear, you have to work hard so that others won’t have to. This sounds harsh, but it’s hard to think of a good reason for being unclear. If you’re not clear, you could be confused, lazy, or even worse.

Confused: This the most common reason for lack of clarity. How many times have you heard or read an explanation that made perfect sense to you—until you tried to explain it to someone else? Until you actively try to explain something, you can’t be sure you understand it. This applies just as much to explanations in our own heads; they always make perfect sense until put into words. You have not thought the issue through carefully enough to explain it simply, or you have overshot your available facts. Although Einstein never actually said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”, there is a lot of wisdom in that statement.

Lazy: You don’t take time to refine your own understanding and expression; you just say or write the first sloppy draft that forms in your mind. It’s amazing how much a two-second pause to think before answering a question can clarify your answer. In addition, many things can be made much clearer to your listeners if you first take the time to find  out how much they  already know, why they need the information, and figure out ways to use their language and analogies that will resonate.

Selfish: Your primary purpose is not to benefit the other person, but to advance your own interests, generally to make yourself seem smarter or more important in the other’s estimation. You are more focused on sounding good than being understood, more worried about seeming smart than making the other person be smart.

Afraid: Even in our egalitarian society, there can be clear distinctions in status among individuals, which I often reflected in our speech patterns. Lower status individuals tend to mitigate their speech, saying things indirectly to avoid offending a higher-status person. The problem has even been linked to plane crashes, which is why  the aviation industry has instituted a training program in crew resource management to eliminate it.

Dishonest: You’re trying to cover up the truth or the fact that you don’t know the truth. You may be generating FOG on purpose. That’s the acronym coined by L.J. Rittenhouse, in his book, Investing between the Lines; it stands for “fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities”, and it’s a staple of many annual reports.


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