Like most first-time parents, I consider my 16-month old son to be one of the smartest, most gifted children alive; and I’m sure I give him credit for understanding significantly more than he really is capable of understanding. So when I give my son a two-minute dissertation on why spaghetti was created for internal, not external use, the question arises: am I effectively communicating with him, or am I simply filling my need to be a hands-on parent?
As we get older and progress in our businesses and professions, all of us like to think of ourselves as at least decent oral and written communicators. And why wouldn’t we? Unless we live and work in complete isolation, all of us communicate in some form or fashion each and every day of our lives. But let’s be honest, just because we frequently engage in something does not necessarily mean that we are more proficient at it. The fact of the matter is that most of us are not as good of communicators as we think we are.
In my practice, I have found two predominant factors that regularly inhibit us from communicating effectively. These factors are perspective and conciseness. I will address both in this article.
Perspective: “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.” We all know what that’s about, right? But couldn’t we just as easily write a book called “Bosses are from Mars and Employees are from Venus,” or “Engineers are from Mars and Mid-Level Managers are from Venus.” We all have different perspectives based upon our experiences and the specific roles we play in our social and professional communities, which brings me to the first factor prohibiting people from communicating effectively –perspective.
We perceive raw, unaltered information differently depending on the experiences, logic, values and principles through which we filter that information. It is for that very reason that we often do not say or write exactly what it is we’re thinking, and our audiences do not always hear or read exactly what it is we say or write. By the time our thoughts leave our mouths and reach our audiences’ brains, our messages become contorted and altered.
Most of us communicate in order to elicit a response from our audience, to achieve a purpose. In order for us to do that effectively, we need to at least understand not only our own biases and prejudices, but those of our audience as well. This often means that we should not say or write something simply because it sounds reasonable to us. That kind of communicating works well only for opinion editorialists. To be sure, my clients certainly don’t pay me to say or write things that only I want to hear. No, they pay me to present their arguments in a way that will be persuasive to a judge, which means that I must consider the judge’s perspective when I communicate with her. Conciseness: Many people confuse being concise with being plain, unintellectual, or unknowledgeable.
But these people likely are the ones who, as my father used to say, “just love to hear themselves talk.” The simple fact is saying or writing more than is necessary to communicate our thoughts often does more harm than good. For one, it distracts our audiences away from what is really important. But more importantly, it fundamentally lowers our audience’s trust that we will provide them with truly important information. So how do you make your communications more concise? Here are a few tips.
1. Use the “active” instead of “passive” voice. What is the difference between “John spent the money he had in savings,” and “The money John had in savings was spent by him?” For starters, the first sentence is a couple of words shorter than the second, which is a good thing in and of itself. But more importantly, the first sentence, unlike the second, has its subject, John, undertaking the action –spending the money. This is referred to as using the “active” instead of “passive” voice. While sometimes appropriate, the passive voice most often forces our readers to reconstruct our sentences in order to ascertain the subjects and objects of those sentences. Using the active voice, on the other hand, allows our audience to flow through our communication by using the old subject-verb-object principle of grammar we all were taught in grade school. This, in turn, allows them to more easily ascertain what we are trying too say.
2. Avoid “nominalizations.” How many of us turn verbs into nouns when we speak or write. If you do, then you are guilty of using nominalizations. Here is an example sentence using a nominalization: “The allied forces mounted a strong resistance against the advancing enemy forces.” Imagine reading a 30-page interoffice memo filled with this type of writing! Now let’s say the same thing, only this time using the root “resist” as a verb instead of a noun: “The allied forces strongly resisted the advancing enemy forces.” By using verbs as verbs instead of nouns, not only do we significantly reduce the number of words we use when we speak or write (from 12 to 9 in this case), but we also make our communications much more concise, thus much more memorable.
3. Make your sentences cohesive. Most audiences have a much easier time hearing, reading and understanding sentences that seamlessly flow one into the next. Connecting sentences in this fashion is known as creating sentence cohesion.
Cohesiveness is best learned by example, so here is an example of a cohesive pair of sentences: “The Federal Reserve has recently said much about the threat of rising interest rates. As any small business owner knows, high interest rates can dramatically affect a company’s ability to make necessary capital improvements.” Notice how the topic “interest rates” appears at the end of the first sentence and then near the beginning of the second, thereby tying the two sentences together. This is how you create cohesiveness in your oral and written communications. And it is this cohesiveness that allows our audience to relax and take in what we are saying without first trying to figure out how our sentences relate.
Life/business is about relationships, and relationships are dependent upon good communication skills. By understanding and implementing the few simple principles I’ve mentioned above, we will be better able to communicate our thoughts more clearly and concisely –more effectively. If you would like to learn more about these and other principles of good communication in more depth, I encourage you to read Style –Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams.
Note: If I were to go back through this article, I would fully expect to find numerous nominalizations and instances where I used the passive instead of active voice. That leads me to the third factor that prohibits us from