Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The 3-Fold Communications Dilemma: Simplicity, Brevity and Clarity








When was the last time you read a fascinating report, learnt about an intriguing innovation or studied emerging trends in your field?



I am sure that the well-read among us might even chime in, "a few minutes ago".



Fair enough.




Now when was the last time you read something important—a business paper, a political issue, or a medical breakthrough—only once and immediately understood the material without needing to re-read sections multiple times to grasp the meaning?



That may be difficult to recall.




Or perhaps you recently listened to a speech or watched a video which lacked a coherent structure.



You are not alone.




The reality we face is that we are losing our ability to communicate effectively.




An interesting paradox now arises: The information overload which marks this digital age has made our attention spans shorter; yet our communications have become more ambiguous.




So some advertisements leave us puzzled about their underlying messages; leaders rant about nothing; and businesses perfect the art of corporate-speak, ("leveraging our competencies for optimal effectiveness").




The main dilemma in communication today is threefold: simplicity, brevity and clarity.





1) Simplifying our messages



"Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple."


Peter Seeger, American folk singer/activist







I often make a declaration in my coaching sessions which I hope encourages participants to embrace simple writing:




Simple doesn't mean simplistic.




Therefore, choose simple and familiar words to express ideas as often as possible. Resist the allure of complex words or the interesting ring to unusual expressions. Your audience may be an educated bunch but remember that comprehension differs from person to person.




As a bonus, know that in the business environment, simplicity of thought or action encourages engagement.



If you cannot break down any issue to its simplest form, you really don't understand your topic. People may even think that you are using complicated, even redundant words to mask your lack of understanding on the issue. As a leader, your credibility will be questioned. At work, you will be ridiculed.




Let’s take a cue from the late Peter Seeger and strive for simplicity. 





2) Keeping our content brief


Perhaps one of the most interesting stories about the power of brevity is linked to the Greek origin of the word 'laconic'.



In ancient times, when King Philip II of Macedon threatened the Spartans thus:




"If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground".



The Spartans simply replied: "If".




Philip II heeded the veiled threat. Other accounts reported that neither he nor his son, Alexander the Great, moved to capture Sparta.




Even though it may not always be practical to deliver witty, monosyllabic responses, note that no one will complain that a speech, presentation, or any type of communication is brief, if it is meaningful.




To be brief, we’ll need to understand the subject-matter thoroughly and then strip away the fluff to deliver.



And that is no easy feat.




It’s no wonder that while giving speeches, we ramble on while we try to 'arrange' our thoughts to create compelling arguments.




Or when we write, we begin with a long preamble and then bury the important bits in the middle because well, that's how we were taught in school.




But we can re-train ourselves to become brief by eliminating unnecessary words and getting straight to the point. By doing so, our arguments will become more convincing and our influencing skills, sharper.






A common example of when we tend to prolong the 'protocol' is when delivering bad news. However uncomfortable it is to be the bearer of whatever misfortune, let's respect the time of the recipient and get on with it.



Case in point, the painfully long statement below: 


Due to budgetary cuts ordered by our new Management and considering limited finances, we regret to inform you that despite the assurance given at our last meeting, we will only be able to manufacture 300 widgets. However, as a sign of goodwill, because we cherish your business, we wish to offer you a twenty-percent discount on the items. We sincerely apologise for inconveniences that our decision might cause you and wish you all the best in your endeavours. (78 words)  



Below is the abridged version which conveys the same sentiment, but without the fluff:




Due to new budgetary cuts, we regretfully inform you that we can now only manufacture 300 widgets. However, because we value your business, we wish to offer you a twenty-percent discount on the items. We sincerely apologise for inconveniences caused. (40 words)




Bad news will always be bad news. Sugar-coating the inevitable doesn't make it any less disappointing. State the information politely. Provide an explanation; express regret, a solution, or both; and move on. 



Enough said. 




3) Clarifying our information 



"When the meaning is unclear, there is no meaning".


- Marty Rubin, writer 









This point is closely linked to simplicity, but note that clarity is achieved when you do two things: 



A) Underscore your main points 


These should preferably be statements/sentences which stand out. Use specific and concrete examples and avoid vague or abstract terms.



It is important to ask yourself what the main purpose of your message is. Do you want to inform, refute, confirm or persuade?




Keep this purpose in mind when delivering your message. There shouldn't be any bewilderment or a so-what question after you finish.




For example, for written documents whereby you have several ideas, use bullet points for brevity, or divide the piece into sections for further explanations.




For speeches, presentations, debates, etc. use adverbs, pauses and phrases to separate points, such as:



"Firstly, let us consider...Next, we must decide...Finally, we should review...".



"Let us address these issues. The first step...".



What  should be avoided in all cases is gobbledygook. Yes, this term actually exists.




Stephen R. Covey, in his style guide for business and technical communication*, (which I strongly recommend for communications professionals), wrote a whole section on the term. He defined it as "...Language that is so pompous, long-winded, and abstract that it is unintelligible".



He gave an excellent example on page 95 to illustrate such nonsense:



"This office's activities during the year were primarily continuing their primary functions of education of the people to acquaint them with their needs, problems, and alternate problem solutions, in order that they can make wise decisions in planning and implementing a total program that will best meet the needs of the people, now and in the future." (57 words)






Utterly baffling, you will agree. 





The paragraph is not only long and confusing but also does not make much sense. 




By contrast, I propose the paragraph below:



Throughout the year, our mentoring activities helped the people to identify their needs and problems. We thus hope that they will plan and implement a long-term program which will address all the highlighted issues. (34 words)





When you ensure that your main points are easily identifiable, your content becomes clearer. 




B) Stress your call-to-action (CTA)


Your CTA is the action you want your recipient/audience to take. You should mention your request at least twice; one of which must be at the end of your communication, because of short attention spans.




Once again, remember the purpose for your communications. Don't just ask your audience for their support; tell them how they should proceed and ensure that all pertinent information is accessible.  





Conclusion


The next time we communicate, let's avoid common pitfalls and aim for simplicity, brevity and clarity.








By adhering to these three beacons of effective communication, we can cut through the 'noise' in the digital age and deliver relevant content which will trigger results.






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*Style Guide For Business And Technical Communication: Tools for Highly Effective Communication (Fifth Edition). 


N.B: First, third and fourth images, courtesy of Stuart Miles; via freedigitalphotos.net. Second image courtesy of Master; via freedigitalphotos.net. Last image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici; via freedigitalphotos.net.