Pity the poor Oscar winner who has to sum up a lifetime’s work, thank their agent, manager, lawyer, 10th grade drama teacher, parents, spouse, kids, all in a minute or less – with a mixture of awe, gratitude and humility. 45 seconds by the time you’ve reached the stage (unless you’re Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep, who always seem to get away with more). It’s a lot to ask if you’re not a professionally-trained actor, even if you are one. This year, a few of them will totally hit the mark. They’ll be prepared, on point, memorable. Many others will miss due to poor execution, a lack of preparation, nerves or a combination thereof.
If brevity is the soul of wit, then it’s also at the heart of effective communication. Brevity, in all its forms, shows respect for yourself and for your audience. When asking for someone’s attention, we usually ask for “a minute” of their time. You wouldn’t say, “how about I come up to your office and ramble for 45 minutes?” At least, I hope you wouldn’t! Ever notice how powerful people never have to “make a long story short”? They are intentionally succinct, and that is part of their gravitas. Brevity is a sign of authority, respect, and mental discipline. For a lucky few, this is an innate gift. For most of us, it is a learned skill, and one we need to practice. Here are some ways to make your own communications shorter, sweeter, and more persuasive.
What do you want us to know?
More than ever before, people are busy, distracted and overloaded with information. They want the headline, and they want it fast. So what is the essential point you’re trying to make? We’ve all sat through PowerPoint presentations that sank slower than the Titanic, or listened to rambling introductions that went absolutely nowhere. I remember being at a conference in New York where one of the speakers – a famous psychologist – gave a 90-minute lecture on “change management.” There were charts and graphs and statistics up the wazoo. When it was all over, one member of audience raised her hand and politely said, “That’s all very interesting, but what do you want us to know?” The speaker was baffled. “Oh,” he said. “Maybe that didn’t come through. What I meant was…” And here, he proceeded to offer a neat two-minute summation of the preceding 90 minutes! Consider, first and foremost, the needs of your audience. Then summarize, summarize, summarize. Get to the point, fast.
To be clear
The most effective communication contains language that is simple, clear and direct. A good example is the political campaign slogan which aims for as few words as possible. If you want the words you say to have an impact on the people who hear them, you must choose those words very carefully. I think there are two main traps that good people fall into. One of them is using “big” words to impress or make ourselves sound smart, when simple words will do. The other is the overuse of jargon which functions like a lazy form of shorthand. Your goal when communicating is not to sound clever or wonky, it is to be clear. An audience needs to be able to grasp your message quickly and efficiently. The measure of your success is in how well an audience member might be able to relay that message to someone else. What will they take away? What can they remember? If the language is woolly, or the message unclear, you’ve lost the desired impact and need to revise it. Here, I defer to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – Omit Needless Words!
I’m okay, the bull is dead
The topic of email deserves a whole newsletter itself. But here is the headline: 3 paragraphs or less, one subject per email, lead with the punchline and make your subject line count. Any more than one subject per email can annoy a reader, and choose a subject heading carefully that will make it easy to find again. There’s a great article by Gopal Kapur entitled “I’m okay, the bull is dead.” It’s about what he learned working as a computer engineer, and the “inverted pyramid” style of communication favored by his boss and news journalists. You give the big headline first, then fill in the details as necessary. Worth a read if you have the time.
The other critical thing to remember about effective communication is that it’s a two-way street. People dislike long monologues and speechifying. All great communicators are also really great listeners. We tend to think of listening as a passive exercise, but it’s not. Listening well is really hard work. You have to be entirely present in the moment, focused wholly on the other person, and this is not easy to achieve. Are you really listening to what the other person is saying, or are you waiting for your turn to speak? Want to know the greatest gift you can give to someone? It’s three words: Tell Me More.
You will have much greater impact on your audience if you show them you respect their time. The best way to do this is to keep it short.
And now, the envelope please…