The smoker said, “Sure I can, I have permission from the abbot.”
“No way! I asked him if I could smoke when I pray and he said it was forbidden.”
“That’s because you didn’t ask the right question”, the smoker replied. “I asked him if I could pray while I smoke.”
As you can see from this example, the same situation can be viewed entirely differently depending on how it is perceived, and how it is perceived depends on how you frame the message. Effective persuaders know how to frame their message for maximum appeal to the intended persuasion target.
They say an expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing. I’m not sure if that’s true, but many of the senior executives I speak with come away from encounters with experts feeling they’ve been told a lot but still understand nothing.
One of the most common issues that I am asked to address in my coaching sessions is how to communicate complex and difficult information to a lay audience. My coaching clients, who include engineers, scientists, and lawyers, sometimes understand on their own that they take too long to express their ideas, and are frustrated by it. More often, they’ve been counseled by others that they must be more concise and clear. As one senior person in a high-tech company told me when he hired me to coach his staff: “I ask people what time it is, and they tell me how to build a watch.”
The real issue is not in making your listeners understand—it’s how to help them get it efficiently.
Brevity is one of the most critical attributes of practical eloquence, because you’re dealing with ever-shrinking attention spans and the discipline of distilling your message to its essence will greatly clarify your thinking.
Here’s one of the best examples of brief eloquence that I’ve come across.
When General Ira Eaker led the first contingents of the 8th Air Force to England in 1942, try hopes were running high for America to add its muscle to the war against Nazi Germany. So, when he was asked to speak at a luncheon, the audience was poised to hang on his every word. Here’s his speech, in its entirety:
“We won’t do much talking until we’ve done more fighting. After we’ve gone, we hope you’ll be glad we came.”
He sat down amid thunderous applause.
If you have any other examples of brief but powerful messages, please share them.
Reading annual reports can be a lot like taking an Ambien on a long flight after a few glasses of wine: if it doesn’t put you to sleep it will definitely befuddle you. That’s why it is so refreshing to read Warren Buffett’s yearly letters. His tremendous knack for candidness, plain speaking, vividness and audience focus is refreshing and instructive.
Candidness: Most annual reports, Enron notwithstanding, are not actually dishonest. They don’t lie outright, but they do make it difficult to figure out the truth, especially when that truth reflects unfavorably on the leadership. Buffett’s self-effacing candidness actually increases his credibility.
“And now a painful confession: Last year your chairman closed the book on a very expensive business fiasco entirely of his own making.” (2009)
“During 2008 I did some dumb things in investments. I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt. I will tell you more about these later. Furthermore, shop I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to re-examine my thinking and promptly take action.” (2008)
“Before making this commitment, Bill and Scott again asked for my advice. Initially, I was pretty puffed up about the fact that they were consulting me. But then it dawned on me that the opinion of someone who is always wrong has its own special utility to decision-makers.” (2004)