The ABCs of Clear Communication

H ow well do you know your ABCs? Probably not as well as you think. If you haven’t figured out that brevity begets clarity, then it’s a good idea to review some basic principles about effective communication, and it all starts with mastering your ABCs: accuracy, brevity, and clarity.

“Communication works for those who work at it.” -- John Powell

As with any skill, practice makes better and when it comes to effective and clear communication, you need to work at it to make it work for you.

Accuracy

Start with accuracy Whatever you say, accuracy is the most critical element of effective and clear communication, both written and oral. Accuracy helps you avoid misunderstandings and conflict and stay true to your message. As workplaces evolve, so does the emphasis on communicating virtually and electronically, before you hit “Send” or “Reply,” focus on the accuracy of your message to save time and resources.

Know your audience and be mindful of their expectations as much as your motive for communicating with them. This helps you decide on the tone and medium to achieve optimal impact. For example, you might choose to market a new product to a younger audience using a TikTok video but opt for an in-person or virtual live event for a company-wide town hall or an update to your executive board members. Knowing your audience ensures your message is understood and elicits the desired response.

Know your message to stay focused on your delivery. The medium you use should take into consideration the type of communication: something delivered verbally will require a different approach than a written one, email may require more detail than a text message, but the latter might signal greater urgency and elicit a more immediate response. Knowing your message helps you influence the timeliness of a response.

Know your words when you write and be cautious to avoid spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors. When speaking, slow down and use proper inflection and intonation. How you deliver the message can be equally, if not more important than the content of the message itself. For example, speakers of certain languages, like English and French, will raise their tone when asking a question, or convey seriousness or excitement.

Know your facts because accuracy means precision, laser in on the data, avoid introducing bias, and be aware of cultural variables and norms so your language is inclusive.

Brevity

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” —William Shakespeare

If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself, said Albert Einstein. It’s not just a lack of knowledge that can confuse your audience but excessive passion and rambling that pushes you off track.

Know the power of brevity. I once spent weeks preparing a presentation. When the day finally came to pitch my idea to the client, I bombed it. After the hour-long presentation, they thanked me and said they’d be in touch. I later learned through a mutual colleague that I had lost the sale because I provided too much detail in my pitch.

Brevity provides maximum information in the minimum number of words possible. This economy of words requires that you avoid repetition, redundancy, vagueness, and overuse of expletives. In written communication, brevity saves time for both the writer and the reader. When speaking, brevity ensures you don’t lose engagement. 

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” 
– Peter Drucker

Less is more. Keep the message simple, short, and interesting, you’ll have less risk of wandering off-topic, offending or overwhelming your audience. 

Respect the silence. Mastering brevity not only involves learning what to say and when to say it — it’s about knowing when to stay quiet too. This indispensable negotiation tactic can help you become a better communicator. 

When you understand the power of brevity, you’re less prone to squirm under the awkward and uncomfortable void created by silence, you can ignore the urge to talk just to fill the emptiness and understand that response doesn’t have to be verbally articulated. Your objective is not to make something better, but simply to connect authentically with the other person.

Get to the point to make a stronger case. Brevity forces you to get straight to the point and provides others with a chance to weigh in and reflect without too much noise. In short, brevity can save you a lot of extra effort and talk. 

Listen to understand, not respond. Use your two ears more than your mouth.

Listen with empathy and repeat what the other person said to demonstrate that you’re listening actively and to validate what you’ve heard. This practice mirrors what the speaker said and causes them to reflect. 

Ask for more. In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier explains how using three small words, “And what else?”, may be the best follow-up question in the world. Why? Because someone’s first answer is never their only answer — and rarely is it the best one. This also encourages the other person to share their thoughts while you listen.

“Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.”
— Nat Turner

Clarity

When it comes to clarity in communication, the message should be logical and well-articulated, not ambiguous. This paves the way for readability and understanding. 

Strive for simple words and phrases by aiming for familiarity and precision. Use specific words and avoid long sentences and clumsy expressions.

Strive for meaning. Ensure your information is both accurate and well-expressed by using active voice, direct language, and concrete words. Don’t use flowery expressions and reinforce your voice by avoiding artificial eloquence. 

Strive for straightforward language structure by using simple sentences instead of run-ons and avoid double negatives and noun forms of verbs.

Bringing It All Together

The ABCs of effective and clear communication are accuracy, brevity, and clarity. When you focus on these three elements, you’ll be able to emphasize one specific message at a time, making it easier to understand and elicit a clear response. When used well, accuracy, brevity and clarity help you deliver a message that is at once sound and impactful.

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