In the introductory post to this series, we defined lean communication as the ability to provide maximum value with minimum waste. I’ll define Value as anything the recipient wants or needs to hear and see.
Speakers deliver value through content and expression; the speaker must deliver the right content in the right way so that the recipient benefits. If you think of a communication opportunity as a product, expression is the package and content is the end product.
Let’s start with expression, because it’s the packaging of your content. Expression consists of making the content understandable without a lot of work on the part of the recipient. You know those products on the market today that are packaged in nearly impregnable plastic shells that endanger your health just trying to get them open? That’s how some presentations and explanations come across. Convoluted structure, meaningless buzzwords, and excessive verbiage are the hard plastic of that listeners struggle to get through to get access to the content.
An end product can fail to deliver the intended value if it’s the wrong product, does not deliver all the needed benefits, or delivers more than the user needs. It’s the same with communication: the recipient expects content that is accurate, sufficient, and relevant. You won’t communicate the necessary value if you have wrong information; or leaves your audience lacking crucial bits of the puzzle to make the best decision; or tell them far more than they need.
The relevance criterion is the most common violation. Assuming you are communicating in good faith, you probably have reasonably accurate and sufficient content for the listener, but it’s easy to give too much information. You may tell a story that’s fascinating but irrelevant, provide too much background detail to someone who is already familiar with the situation, or simply ramble on through undisciplined communication or lack of confidence. Too much information wastes time, but it can also detract from value by making it difficult for the listener to sort out exactly what they need to know—more is usually less.
How to ensure maximum value?
The surest way to deliver value in communication is to think before you speak. Be clear in your own mind what you want the listener to know or do, and why. If that means writing down your thoughts before an important discussion, it’s an investment that almost always carries a positive return, especially in terms of improving the packaging.
The what usually comes easy, but you can only be clear about the why through outside-in thinking, or seeing the situation through the other’s perspective and interests. That takes time, research, and preparation.
Even in a more casual communication, you can impart greater value by applying the So What filter to everything you say: what does this information mean to this listener at this time? The so what might be different for each particular receiver, depending on their needs, and their previous knowledge levels and attitudes.
Finally, you can create more value for the listener by being a listener yourself. Where communication differs from the product analogy is that you have real time control over the product as you deliver it. Pay attention to the effect your message is having on the recipient, and be prepared to add, delete or modify on the spot as necessary.
Tomorrow’s post will examine the many ways you can achieve lean communication by identifying and eliminating waste.
P.S. Although I usually add a picture to my posts, I could not think of one that would add any value at all.
 Listener, audience, or customer, depending on the type of communication.
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, help 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.
Morse code from the light signals back, “You need to move to the right.”
The Captain signals again: “I have the right of way. MOVE TO THE RIGHT!”
The mysterious light replies: “I suggest you move.”
As the lights begin to converge on a collision course, the Captain signals: “I am a 50,000 ton United States Navy battleship! MOVE TO THE RIGHT!!!”
The light replies: I am a lighthouse. I suggest you move immediately.”
If you want to achieve max cred, your aim should be to make sure that your presentations and your conversations are like the lighthouse in that story: so rock-solid that they have the right of way in any question. As John Adams said,
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
I put credentials first in this series because they get you in the door, but content is the most important factor in keeping you there; it’s what delivers on the promise of your credentials. Ultimately, your personal credibility will rest upon the quality of your ideas. Therefore, the first and most important factor in personal credibility is the truth, logic and relevance of what you say.
Content is hugely important for practical and ethical reasons. It’s supremely practical because it’s based on reality, and reality can be tested and verified. As long as you say things that make logical sense, and are backed up by verifiable facts, your credibility can not be undermined. It will stand on its own.
You also have to keep in mind that people may not act or decide immediately on hearing you, so even if you can get them fired up, the excitement might wear off but the facts on the ground won’t change.
Of course, content is also ethical. Unfortunately, the world has too often fallen victim to people who managed to appear credible even though the content of their messages was false and or harmful. These manipulators know how to pull the levers of credibility for their own immoral ends; I hope you are not one of them, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
Of course, we all know that content is important, so how can we actually use this to improve our credibility?
Be sure of your facts
The power of internet search engines gives us more information at our immediate disposal than anyone in history could have ever dreamed possible, but at the risk of filtering out the BS from the truth. Make sure your information is from a trusted source, or cross-check it against other sources whenever possible.
Know them cold
Of course, you don’t always have to have knowledge at the tip of your tongue. It might be enough to know where to get the relevant knowledge to bring to the table, but far more impressive and credible to others is the person who has a firm grasp of the relevant material and can discuss it fluently and at length from memory.
Get your own
Even more credible is knowledge gained through personal observation; it’s difficult for anyone else to challenge, because you may have had unique access to it. The key here is to make sure you have a personal acquaintance with the facts, by getting to the scene and observing first-hand as much as possible.
Anticipate depth, breadth and height of questioning
Superficial knowledge of your material may be just enough to get you into trouble. You don’t want your presentation to be like a movie set of a western town with all front and no back. Any favorable initial impression can be quickly lost if you can’t answer the deeper questions others might have. And, you can be sure that if your audience consists of higher-level executives, they will drill down to help themselves understand what you’re saying, or to test your mastery of the subject.
Pressure-test your ideas
Research and analysis are not enough—you’ve got to test your position against challenges for maximum confidence. Ideas are like organisms: survival depends on adapting effectively to competition. Carefully consider the position of the listener, think of their counterarguments and then write down effective responses. Expose weaknesses and shore them up, and then enlist others to try to pick holes in your position.
Don’t get out in front of your facts
The surest way to avoid credibility loss is to thoroughly master your material, or to speak only about that which you are expert in. That is not always possible, of course, so the next best thing is to make sure that you don’t overstate your expertise or claim more than your facts allow. Be honest about your limitations if asked, or even before you deliver the material. (There is a fine line, here, of course, because admitting your limitations up front can damage your credibility.)
Keep facts and opinions separate
There is nothing wrong with using personal opinion to support your arguments. In fact, in most persuasive efforts you will not have an airtight case that can be proven with mathematical rigor. Some of the information you might need is simply unavailable, unknowable, or untested.
If you do use opinion, make sure you are transparent about it. Be honest about the difference between fact and opinion with others. More importantly, perhaps, be honest with yourself about the difference.
If you follow these rules carefully, you will have lighthouse content and you’ll be able to defend your credibility against any battleship bully in the room.
Other Articles in this Series
We all know how important it is to be a critical thinker, especially so today, when we are deluged with so much misinformation and it seems like we are being sold almost every single minute. That’s why most of us find it easy to turn on our skeptical radar whenever someone we don’t know pitches us with an idea that’s a little different or seems too good to be true.
But, in terms of cognitive resources, skepticism and critical thinking are expensive. It’s mentally exhausting to be on your guard at all times. According to what Daniel Kahneman calls the law of least effort, we gravitate to the easiest thinking path when we can. So, it’s tempting to simply trust and accept what the other person is saying.
Trust is comfortable. Trust is a shortcut. And trust that is built up through long years of familiarity and experience with someone is can be an extremely reliable and useful shortcut. In fact, unless you’re on a desert island somewhere, it’s impossible to live without it.
The problem is that we generally overestimate our ability to accurately size people up and determine their trustworthiness. Regardless of how smart we think we are, we use shortcuts to form our judgments of trust.
We’ve heard the phrase that Reagan made famous: “trust but verify”. But while trust is comfortable, verifying is hard. And sometimes, that comfort gets us into trouble.
Crafty persuaders know this, and they work hard to establish the conditions to relax our skepticism. Bernie Madoff belonged to the right organizations, he gained trust vicariously through word of mouth, and he worked hard to produce the bogus results for so long.
But the crafty persuaders may be the least of our worries. It’s the sincere persuaders, who truly believe in what they’re selling, that can get us into the most trouble. We may need our skepticism more than ever, not only to keep from going down the wrong path but to save others from themselves.
Here’s where I’m conflicted. I strongly promote all the things that make for successful persuasion: passion, stories, credentials, etc. But none of those factors, or even all of those factors combined in one package, guarantee that it’s a good idea. Whenever the following ingredients are present, remind yourself to dial up the skepticism:
Passion. I put this number one, because when someone is passionate about what they do, they almost always ignore any contradictory evidence or differing interpretations.
Stories. I love stories just as much as anyone else. Stories suck you in, and get you to suspend your disbelief. Of course, good stories don’t mean the person isn’t telling the truth, but remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.
Credentials. They are generally a reliable guide to credibility, but watch the limitations. Peyton Manning is a great quarterback, but that doesn’t mean I trust his taste in pizzas. Besides, if the person speaking is highly important, they may have cut corners themselves, because they have grown too accustomed to being believed because of who they are.
Confidence. As pack animals, we respond to outward shows of strength, and when we reflect that confidence back to the speaker, it just reinforces it. It never hurts to scratch beneath the surface by asking a tough question.
Evidence. Pay attention to the diagonals. When someone says that successful companies did these three things, have they said anything about the companies that did those three things and failed, or the companies that did not do those three things and did succeed?
Optimism. I learned early in my banking days to use the borrower’s worst-case projections as my best case. An engineer in my Precision Questioning class once taught me that any projection that looks like a hockey stick on a graph is wrong.
When you’re selling your ideas, every one of those ingredients can help. When you’re being sold, every one of those ingredients should be taken with a pinch of salt.