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5 Simple Rules That Will Make You A Powerful Communicator

2023 May 7
by Greg Satell

Sometimes the hardest thing is merely to make yourself understood. Things that change the world, or even a small part of it, always arrive out of context because, by definition, the world hasn’t changed yet. That’s why innovators need to be great communicators, because an idea that doesn’t gain traction is an idea that fails.

That’s easier said than done. As Fareed Zakaria has put it, “Thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my ‘thoughts’ are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them.” Clearly, if he struggles, we all do.

Yet the good news is that most people can immensely improve their communication skills by following a few simple rules. While, like any skill, they take a lifetime of practice to hone and perfect, you can start seeing progress within a few hours. It doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur, a senior executive or just starting out, you need to communicate effectively.

1. Clarity Before Creativity, Always

Most people want their writing and speaking to be impressive. They have an idea in their heads of what a “professional” sounds like and they try to emulate those traits. They use big words, infuse acronyms and technical language or try to pluck a choice term or two out of the zeitgeist.

Yet trying to conform to some abstract notion of “professional” or “impressive” is a sure way to garble your message. Instead of trying to impress, just try to be clear. Different people have different conceptions of what they consider to be professional or impressive, but everyone knows what is clear.

The truth is that nobody cares how clever you are if they can’t understand what you’re trying to tell them and few will take the time and effort to figure it out. Most probably, they will assume you haven’t really thought things through and move on to other things.

So as you formulate your message, whether it’s an email, a pitch, a keynote or whatever, continually ask yourself, “how can I make it more clear?”

2. When In Doubt, Take It Out

Born in the late 13th century, William of Ockham was a giant of his age.  As one of the few intellectual lights of medieval times, his commentaries on reason, logic and political theory are studied even today.  His ideas about the separation of church and state were literally centuries ahead of their time and formed the basis for our own constitutional principle.

Yet he’s best known for Ockham’s Razor, sometimes known as the “principle of parsimony.” Often, the principle is interpreted as “Keep It Simple Stupid,” but that’s not quite right. A much more accurate translation would be, “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” In other words, if something doesn’t need to be there, it shouldn’t be.

A useful device I use for applying Ockham’s razor is to imagine my audience, whether that is a reader or a listener, as having an internal “cognitive budget” they are willing to devote to whatever I’m trying to tell them. Then I judge everything I include by the standard of, “is this worth using up my cognitive budget?”

So be cautious and respectful with your audience’s attention. If you have any doubts whether it needs to be there, it probably doesn’t. Take it out and see if anything meaningful is lost. If not, keep it out and don’t look back.

3. If It Sounds Like Writing, It’s Probably Not Good

When we’re taught to write in school, we’re usually urged to follow a certain form. This often involves an academic, detached tone of voice. For many of the same reasons, when we speak to an audience, our tone takes on a “speaker’s voice. In both cases, the result is that we come off as performative and inauthentic.

Your communication, whether you’re speaking or writing, should sound like you, not someone you’re trying to be at a particular moment. Your vocabulary shouldn’t be significantly different when you write than when you speak. Your grammar and turns of phrase shouldn’t vary too much either. There’s absolutely no reason for you to come off as someone else.

Style should be invisible. If your audience is focusing on how you’re writing or speaking, then that steals cognitive energy away from concentrating on the message you’re trying to communicate. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to sound a certain way, just focus your energy on being as clear as possible.

4. Default To One Point

If you’re going to rob a bank, as a general rule anything you say after “put the money in the bag or I’ll blow your head off,” will be somewhat superfluous. That one simple point is perfectly sufficient for the job at hand. In fact, the uncomfortable pause that follows will probably accentuate the impact of your message.

Now, clearly there are exceptions to the “default to one point” rule. For example, if you kidnapped the teller’s family, that kind of time and effort might warrant adding a second point. Even then though, you might want to let your first point sink in and keep your second point in reserve in case you need to overcome an objection.

Obviously, I’m being facetious and not suggesting anyone actually rob a bank, but the point stands. In most contexts, but especially if you’re on a panel or doing a Q&A session, you’re usually, although not always, better off sticking to one point and making it well than trying to jam in a too much information

And, of course, if they like your one point they’ll be likely to ask for more. That’s how you build a conversation.

5. Dare to be Crap 

The hardest thing about starting a project of any sort is that we always compare initial efforts to finished products and, not surprisingly, those efforts always seem to come up short. As Pixar President Ed Catmull wrote in his book, Creativity, Inc., “early on, all of our movies suck.” If it’s true of Pixar movies, it’s probably true of our work.

That makes it really hard to begin writing or scripting, because whatever you first put down is bound to be a disappointment. Your wording will be clumsy, your points will be unclear and you’ll begin to realize that your great idea is actually, as Fareed Zakaria put it, “a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them.”

Your first efforts are always crap. Yet that shouldn’t blind you to the fact that all great works start out that way.  As Vladimir Nabokov put it, “writing is rewriting.” The greatness comes not from the initial spark of inspiration, but from the long hours spent honing it down to reveal its core. But before you do that, you need to dare to be crap and produce a first draft.

The truth is that communicating even fairly simple ideas can be very hard work. As in most things, talent is overrated. You produce good work not from having a knack for a clever turn of phrase, but by putting in the effort to express your ideas clearly.


Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Photo by Tony Hand on Unsplash



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