Clear thinking

Clear thinking - Lean Communication - Persuasive communication

Lean Communication: Making Work Visible

ProgressIn lean manufacturing, making work visible is about organizing work so that everyone involved is clear at all times what the status of work is, and the most important next steps are obvious. As I’ve written earlier, the core of lean is the development of awareness of value and waste, and you can’t be aware of what you can’t see.

In lean communication, it’s about structuring your message so that a) you can see clearly what you’re saying, and b) your listeners can too. You need a clear structure that exposes your logic so you more can easily spot flaws and gaps, and correct them before someone else does for you. That structure also makes it more likely that listeners will get the meaning you intend, not the one that they might infer.

If it means outlining a long message or presentation, so be it. Mindmapping might also help, but a traditional outline is usually better because you still have to speak sequentially. Besides outlining as you prepare your remarks, you can “tell them what you’re going to tell them.” (But I don’t recommend telling them what you told them, if you can see that they got it—that would violate the pull principle of lean communication.)

If it means following a template, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Templates keep you from reinventing the wheel every time you speak and ensure you don’t miss anything critical. The best template is the one that systematically answers the likely questions in the audience’s mind.

Besides having a clear structure, it helps even more to make the structure visible by having signposts and highlights while you’re speaking. For example, if someone asks you what could delay your project, you might say: “There are three possible risks. The first is…”

By making it easy for others to follow you’re adding value, reducing waste, and making yourself appear more credible at the same time.

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Clear thinking - Lean Communication - Persuasive communication

Lean Communication: Delivering Maximum Value

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[1] 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.


[1] Listener, audience, or customer, depending on the type of communication.

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Clear thinking - Persuasive communication

Max Cred Factor #3: Clarity

The clearest speakers will rise to the top.

The clearest speakers will rise to the top.

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.[1]

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:


Twain replied:


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:

Max Cred: How to Build and Preserve Personal Credibility

Max Cred Factor #1: Credentials

Max Cred Factor #2: Lighthouse Content


[1] “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”, Daniel M. Oppenheimer. Applied Cognitive Psychology 2006.

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Clear thinking - Persuasive communication

Max Cred Factor #2: Lighthouse Content

lighthouseThere’s an old joke about a battleship cruising through the fog at night when the bridge sees lights approaching. The ship signals: “Move to the right.”

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

Max Cred: How to Build and Preserve Personal Credibility

Max Cred Factor #1: Credentials

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