Communicating effectively is so instrumental to success that speaking and writing well are probably the most important skills a person can learn. Yet they are taught only piecemeal in school, when taught at all. Instead of focusing on communicating thoughts and ideas clearly, schools break communication into subjects like English, other languages, and public speaking. But there is so much more to effective communication than grammar, spelling, or calming your nerves in front of an audience. Good communication is not a hard trait to master; it is, in fact, quite simple. And best of all, with good communication skills, you can do virtually anything. Here are some easy ways to improve your communication starting today.
1. Keep it simple. An above ground yet grounded view of your topic is often best so that readers get your point without getting bogged down in details. How would you describe economics, for example? Most scholars have very complex answers riddled with technical jargon. Novices too tend to struggle with the definition, often giving a vague and high level description. Below is an elegant description from an unlikely source:
“As children we see one person hand a cookie to another, and we remember it as an act of giving. One person gives another one a cookie in exchange for a banana; we chunk the two acts of giving together and think of the sequence as trading. Person 1 trades a banana to Person 2 for a piece of shiny metal, because he knows he can trade it to Person 3 for a cookie; we think of that as selling. Lots of people buying and selling make up a market. Activity aggregated over many markets gets chunked into the economy. The economy now can be thought of as an entity which responds to actions by central banks; we call that monetary policy. One kind of monetary policy, which involves the central bank buying private assets is chunked as quantitative easing.”
If this had been my textbook in college, I would have aced economics. Note how simple and concrete this example is. It was clearly written by someone knowledgeable about the subject and at the same time comfortable writing in plain English. This sort of writing shouldn’t even be called “plain;” to the contrary, it is elegant, an art form. The writer is Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist from Harvard who has studied language extensively. He is not an economist. He wrote this for his recent book The Sense of Style, a manual on how to write well. It’s an absolutely brilliant book. Ironically, in the passage above, Pinker wasn’t even writing about economics; he was describing a brain process known as chunking (how the brain puts concepts together and stores them in memory). But it could have served just as well in an introduction to economics text. It sure beats the standard “economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources,” which I pulled from a leading introductory level economics textbook. Honestly, what the hell does that mean and what does it have to do with economics? Adding in concepts like society, scarce resources, and management just complicates the issue. Economics is really about buying and selling cookies.
2. Eliminate technical jargon. Connect your dongle into the DSL port for broadband. Huh? Just plug your computer in to connect to the Internet! Pinker makes it clear in his book just how bad it is to use terms of art, even when speaking to experts. I couldn’t agree more. As bad as it is to read jargon, it’s even worse in conversation or during speeches. A live audience has no opportunity to reflect upon or look up ambiguous words. Keep your words concrete and avoid any terms of art. (One criticism of Pinker is that he called his book The Sense of Style in a nod to other “style books.” In this case, style is a linguistic term of art referring to writing styles but who knows that besides linguists. A better name would have been The Sense of Writing, although that is much less sexy and I suspect Kim Kardashian would not have inadvertently picked up that tome.)
3. Be concise, but not too concise. Too many writers, coaches, and style guides have told us that we should practice brevity in our writing and speaking. But their advice has been too brief. Our jobs are to communicate effectively, not necessarily to communicate quickly. If a topic needs more explanation to the reader or listener, by all means keep going. The best communicators never leave their audience struggling to decipher words or wondering what was meant. It is in fact quicker to explain what nouveau riche means (people who have recently come into money) than to keep an audience guessing or force a reader to look the concept up. Even better, lose the fancy French and just say “new money.” The commodity we are trying to save is time, not paper. And by time, I mean the reader’s or audience’s time, not the author’s.
4. Avoid abbreviations and acronyms. PPC…is it a drug or a search marketing campaign? Virtually all acronyms should be avoided virtually all the time. I always make a point of stopping people who use abbreviations, even if I know what they mean. They are confusing (does WTF mean World Trade… or What The…), convoluted (CAPTCHA is what exactly), and they slow down the brains of the listener (try thinking of TMI without also thinking of the entire phrase). Unless the abbreviation has become a common word, don’t use it. A special note on company names: only employees know your abbreviated brands. When I took over our company, we decided to use Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. instead of D&B Credibility. Yes it is a mouthful, but it’s descriptive and carries the history of the 173 year old brand. ATT, IBM, and GE can perhaps get away with abbreviations and frankly, those companies were forced to make the change because the original name no longer fit with the business. Others are not so lucky: SAP, TSA, and EY come to mind. An abbreviation is not a brand.
5. Reduce the use of canned phrases. Using canned phrases is passé, old hat, out of date, yesterday’s news. Invent something new and make sure your analogy ties directly to the subject.
6. Be concrete. People despise abstraction. Either be 100% concrete or provide an example. Don’t say “act local;” instead, describe what it means and provide an example such as “shop at Joe’s Pizza on the corner of Main and 5th.” The reason pictures are so much more valuable than words is because they are concrete by definition (even abstract art is physical). On the other hand, language is an abstraction, so we must work harder at it. Tell a story and people will see your brushstrokes.
7. Be conversational. Whether you are having a casual conversation, conducting a meeting, giving a speech or writing a memo, communicate with a specific voice and to a certain ear. Always speak to someone specific even in a room full of people, and write to someone specific as well. Moms are great for this: write it down and then call mom up and read it out loud. If you are preparing a speech, say it to yourself and then to as many people as you can in advance of the actual speech. Once everyone understands what you are saying, including mom, you are ready. Economics is a complicated subject, but even mom would have understood Pinker’s definition.
Write as you speak; speak as you write. Pinker spends significant time in his new book focusing on making sure our writing reads like spoken English. But he doesn’t acknowledge that most of us don’t speak very well. Yes, the two should mostly be synonymous; no, you cannot use your speaking as a guide for good writing…unless you speak well. Practice the above habits and you will master the art of communication.
Published in collaboration with LinkedIn
Author: Jeff Stibel is the Chairman & CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. and author of NYT bestseller Breakpoint.
Image: A generic picture of a woman writing. REUTERS/Catherine Benson.