Three things to avoid if you want to make sure people understand you
In 1920 Vladimir Lenin already recognized the power of controlling the printing press. A century later, in today’s social media world, the real battle ground is our everyday language.
Language is the ultimate tool to inspire people to take action. Unfortunately, we frequently squander its impact by making three mistakes:
- Using jargon
- Excessive re-framing
- Not being concise
1. Using jargon
When I started as a management consultant, I had the idea that my reports needed to reflect, what I perceived as, the tools of my new chosen trade. For instance, rather than writing ‘making a loss’, I preferred to use the phrase ‘realizing a negative contribution’ in presentations.
Later in my career I became the head of a fairly large department. I had a very busy agenda and managed a number of staff in multiple locations around the world.
At that moment, I realized how time consuming it was to work with people who used complicated and woolly language. When I tried to decipher the reports of some of my staff or external consultants in their presence, I frequently had the idea that I was pulling teeth (‘Ah…, so you do not think we should not do this?’, ‘So, what you are actually saying is that our customers would be willing to pay for this?’).
If you like using jargon, please be aware that it can indicate insecurity on your side. According to a recently published article by Brown, Anicich and Galinsky, people who consider themselves low on status tend to use jargon to impress their audiences, whereas those who consider themselves high in status, are more concerned with clearly expressing their ideas.
2. Excessive re-framing
In the late 1980’s, at the start of my career, I was fortunate enough to be employed by a US company that seriously invested in developing its employees.
It was in this organization that I first learned the power of ‘re-framing’.
Being as Dutch as they come, I, and my fellow Dutch colleagues, considered a ‘problem’ as a word with only negative connotations. It was a real eye-opener for us that a ‘problem’ could be re-labeled as a ‘challenge’. In the beginning we felt a little uncomfortable doing so, but in the end we really liked it. The reason was that the positive connotations of the word ‘challenge’ released energy.
The danger of re-framing, however, is that it can become too much of a good thing. This happened for instance when we were told that we needed to consider ‘our mistakes’ as ‘our treasures’. We found that a little harder to stomach, especially given our business results at that time…
If done properly, re-framing can release energy by generating a drive for action. However, when taken too far, it is no longer credible, and does not generate energy anymore.
In personal relationships, excessive re-framing can make true communication between individuals impossible and even damage relationships, because people may feel their feelings are not recognized.
That is especially the case if the notion of ‘perception’ is overused, for instance in this example:
Person A : ‘My boss no longer invites me for certain meetings, never wants to go with me for lunch anymore and recently cut my salary by 25%. I think my boss harbors bad feelings towards me’.
Person B: ‘Are you sure that is the case? Is that not just your perception? Could it be that, by not inviting you for meetings anymore, your boss wants to save you time, is concerned for your health because the food in our canteen is not particularly healthy, and wants to help you to simplify your life by streamlining your finances?’
3. Not being concise
The fact that we live in a ‘very noisy world’ means that we should not only be precise regarding the meaning of our communication, but also be concise regarding the format.
We need to be concise to make sure people understand what we expect them to do. In today’s business world we are continuously exposed to new information. Therefore we tend to scan written forms of communication like presentations and emails, rather than actually reading them.
This means authors need to do two things: keep written communications as short as possible and make sure the call(s) to action stand out.
- Surprisingly enough, being brief is more difficult and requires more time than being extensive. Being brief requires investing time to think about (1) where our audience is and (2) how we get our message(s) across to them as efficiently as possible. Long emails and extensive presentations are therefore often a sign of lack of preparation on the part of the sender. ‘I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.’ (Mark Twain).
- We also need to make sure our call(s) to action jump out. ‘Hiding’ them somewhere in the body of an email or presentation, is not a recipe for success. Using bold typefaces and including calls for action at the very beginning, or the end of written communications, tends to work a lot better.
A refreshing strategy session
A couple of weeks ago I co-organized two engagement sessions for a business leader in a leading company in the high-tech industry. In these sessions he explained to the staff why the company had chosen to move from one technology platform to another.
It was the most radical move in the history of the company, with major implications for the company and its customers.
Both sessions were only 40 minutes long, and no PowerPoint slides were used. Despite my skepticism around the absence of PowerPoint slides (I swear by them!) the sessions were extremely effective and inspiring.
Why? Because of the clarity with which the leader explained his position and answered the questions from the audience.
Seldom have I heard a business leader explaining in such plain language why his company had taken the radical decisions it had taken and the consequences it was prepared to accept.
Statements like ‘Unless we switch to platform B we will become extinct’, and ‘I am no longer prepared to sell solution A to clients’ did not require any re-framing or jargon.
Instead, the clarity of the leader served as a catalyst for the discussion and inspired the audience to take action.
Ultimately the goal of communication is to inspire action. Therefore, as business leaders, we probably should take the words of fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg to heart:
© Dirk Verburg 2021
Picture credit: Sunrise in Graubünden – DutchAperture (c)