It seems so straightforward: The best way to cut through communication clutter is to make every message as short and simple as possible.

But we struggle with brevity and simplicity. Why? Because:

  • It's human nature to want to share absolutely everything we know--and it's actually easier to include the contents of the kitchen sink rather deciding on the one point you want to make and sticking to it.
  • The problem gets worse if you're a subject matter expert, or have what authors Dan and Chip Heath call "The Curse of Knowledge." As they write in Made to Stick, "When a CEO discusses 'unlocking shareholder value,' there is a tune playing in her head that the employees can't hear. It's a hard problem to avoid--a CEO might have thirty years of daily immersion in the logic and conventions of business." Experts are chest-deep in their own knowledge, in fact, that they think the water's just fine and everyone should jump into the deep end. But audience members are afraid of drowning. They prefer to stay nice and dry up there on the beach rather than risk getting sucked out to sea by the overload undertow.
  • Cautious people (especially lawyers) feel most comfortable including every blessed fact. Clarity is risky, after all. It's much safer to include lots of clauses and disclaimers (partly because if no one can understand what the heck you're talking about, they're less likely to challenge it, or to sue).
  • But none of these reasons is as pernicious as good communication's worst enemy: ego. If someone (hopefully not you) is sure that he is absolutely fascinating, why wouldn't he want to share the entire contents of his brain? As far as he's concerned, there's no way you could condense his brilliance into 200, 400 or even 4,000 words. Who cares about the audience's time constraints? They should stop whatever they're doing and pay attention to his pearls of wisdom.

Despite these obstacles, if your success depends on getting your message across, you must throw off the shackles of excessive length and complexity, and say it simply. Here are 3 ways to do so:

  1. Keep in mind that people are smart enough to understand your complexity; they're just too busy to do so. As Mike Rawlings, the mayor of Dallas, Texas (and former President of Pizza Hut) says, "Why should we simplify? People are busy, and they appreciate the effort you make. By simplifying, you honor those people."
  2. Choose words and terms that are familiar to the largest percentage of your audience. If you use any words or terms where there's even the slightest possibility that it might be unfamiliar, define it. Don't worry about insulting the people who know what the term means--if you routinely use definitions, the audience will see that it's just the helpful way you do things.
  3. Avoid jargon, technical or scientific language or "corporate speak" (that stiff, lawyer-sounding, big-word-laden nonsense you find in annual reports). If someone insists that you use this junk, move it way down in your content, First, decide the story you want to tell. Then, create content using clear headlines, a nice short summary, breakheads, sidebars and other chunked content. And only if there's room or time should you include details.

This process is not easy. As Mike Rawlings says, "Simplifying takes a tremendous amount of thought. It requires a lot more effort." But the hard work is worth it, in communication that's clear, simple and compelling.

Published on: Aug 26, 2014
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