Expression - Lean Communication - Persuasive communication

The Limits of Lean Communication

As I wrote last week, lean communication is an enormously useful tool for ensuring that your communication with others adds value, briefly and clearly. But human nature is too complex to be reduced to ironclad rules.

Think of this article as the disclaimer to that one. In persuasive communication, there are always exceptions. There are definitely times when you might want or need to violate some of the rules. Let’s go through each:


The rule here is to add value to the recipient, which means framing your message in a way that is good for the other person. There are times when this rule does not apply…

  • If the situation demands instant compliance, brevity and clarity should trump added value.
  • Some pies can’t be made bigger—you want a slice that will just make theirs smaller. When you want something from the other person and there is no clear benefit to them, trying too hard to make it seem like it’s in their best interests can expose your insincerity; it’s better to be up-front about the fact that’s it’s not win-win.


The rule is to eliminate unnecessary verbiage that does not add value to the communication. But you still have to be smart about it…

  • Anyone who has a teenager knows the frustrations of dealing with excessive brevity. Keep the relationship in mind when deciding how brief to be. When EQ is more important than IQ, sometimes you have to take more time to make the other person feel heard or valued. It’s easy to cross the line from brisk to brusque, especially because it’s the other person who decides where that line is. You have to use your common sense and judgment and most of all pay attention to the other person.
  • Never forget that brevity which derives from deep thought is a totally different concept than sound-bite brevity, which is a product of shallow thinking, closed-mindedness, and snap judgments.


In general, you want to transfer what’s in your head with as little chance for misunderstanding as possible, except in these cases…

  • There are benefits to ambiguity, imprecision and wiggle room in communication. When the idea you’re proposing is likely to be opposed by the other person, it’s not a good idea to begin with the bottom line up front, because of the risk that they might immediately stop listening or listen only to poke holes in your argument. In such cases, the shortest distance between two persuasive points may be a loop that starts from where they are and gradually circles back to your point of view.
  • If your listeners are already on your side but your logic is less than airtight, being too clear may expose your weaknesses. Am I advocating fudging? What do you think? You may find this distasteful, but it’s the foundation of marketing and advertising; let your conscience be your guide.
  • When clarity crosses the line to being “brutally honest”, it has definitely gone too far.
  • When it’s not worth your time: My friend Gary told me a story about being at a conference with a colleague who had an inflated opinion of his own speaking ability. After he spoke, he asked Gary what he thought of his presentation. Gary replied, “Of all the presentations I’ve seen today, yours was definitely the most recent.” The fellow beamed and strutted away.

In another context, George Orwell wrote six rules for writers that align with brevity and clarity, but probably the most important is his last: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” In that spirit, strive to add value, briefly and clearly—except when it contradicts your more important goals, common sense, or good taste.

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December 10, 2013
1 Comment
  • Brevity Good. Nice follow-on topic Jack. Your notion that brevity which derives from deep thought is inherently different than a sound-bite is solid. I suspect some confusion stems from the complexity of evolving sales communications. Between the Social Selling camp’s data showing the importance of pithy headlines and Twitter’s 140-character constraint, brevity is all but required, at least for those modes. However, beyond those restrictions, I second your guidance on clarity, adding value, and propose the mindset of making the length appropriate for the needs of the audience. (What do they need to know and feel?). Of course, this requires writers to thoroughly consider their audience(s) before putting fingers to keyboard. I look forward to your next thoughtful post.

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