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Be Heard. Speak Plainly.

Be Heard. Speak Plainly.

Crystal Clear

    Every semester I get a handful of students who have settled on the idea that the more big words they use, the better. Regardless of whether they know what those words mean or not.

    So I get papers elucidating the patriarchal configuration of the social arrangement, rather than telling me about male-dominated societies. Or they pontificate on the topic of inadequate provision of pedagogical resources vis-à-vis the particular requirements of participation in the modern form of governance, instead of describing the failure of schools to prepare kids to be good citizens. And so on.

    They learn it, of course, from the bad writing that plagues many of the works assigned to them. But it is because we as a society hold such work in high regard that students ape the style of the complicated stuff instead of the more readable work on their reading lists – which is just a s common as the hoity-toity stuff. They think writing smart must mean using big words and tortured grammar, mistaking difficulty of a work for some measure of its quality.

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    If you have to work at it, the thinking goes, it must be worth working at.

    Of course, this is nonsense. Yes, there are works of exceeding difficulty that are worth reading – in spite of the difficulty, not because of it. And these works – even the best of them – would benefit greatly from a good strong dose of plainspoken-ness. In fact, the ideas in many academic works may even be stronger if they were expressed more clearly.

    The same holds true for all kinds of writing and speaking – for communication in general. If it’s important at all, it deserves to be expressed clearly and plainly, so that anyone can understand it. The language that academics use and students love to imitate is not meant to communicate ideas, it’s meant to hide them, to act as a test to see who belongs and who doesn’t. The same is true of the gibberish that many business people write and speak, leveraging their synergistic solution platforms in order to maximize the extraction of secondary revenues in the blah blah blah.

    The problem is that this kind of language buries ideas and muddies thinking. Which, of course, is the point a lot of the time – the business can’t come right out and say they killed 400 people with faulty products and the student can’t come out an say she has no idea what the readings were about or that he hasn’t been to class for weeks.

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    But if the ideas are important – and if you live a life where they aren’t, get out and start over – they deserve to be shared in all their glory, not hidden behind a veil of words. It’s not too hard to speak or write plainly if you follow a few simple rules.

    1. Honor the idea.

    Speaking plainly starts and ends with the idea. This could be how to bring about world peace or what Pantone color to use on your office’s stationery – put the idea front and center and let it shine. Don’t damage it by trying to make it appear fancy – if it’s a good one, it doesn’t need help and if it’s a bad one, it doesn’t need saying.

    Along the same lines, avoid qualifying yourself too much. While it’s fine to express uncertainly when you’re really uncertain, too often people “soften” their ideas by phrasing them as things that they “believe” or “think” or “feel”. They present facts as opinions and opinions as feelings, making it almost impossible to deal with the actual substance of the idea being spoken. Don’t do that – stand behind what you say and take the risk of being wrong.

    2. Be yourself.

    Usually when people speak un-plainly, it’s because they are trying to appear to be something – or someone – that they’re not: smarter, better educated, most business-like, cooler, or whatever.  They’re hiding their real self behind a screen of words that they would never use otherwise. It’s a bit odd, really – if the idea you’re trying to express is yours, why pretend someone else had it?

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    3. When given a choice, choose the shorter word.

    English is a funny language; there are almost always two or more words that mean the same thing. Usually, one will tend to be longer and more vague, like “civilized”, and the other will be shorter and more direct, like “polite” or “nice” or just “good”. As a general rule, people trying to dress up their ideas in showy clothes go for the longer, vaguer words – which is why the idea itself can be weakened. Use indirect language to express yourself long enough, soon even you will not be able to say exactly what it is you mean! When you have a choice, go for the shorter word – if it sounds too blunt or even rude, chances are it’s the clearest way to say what you intend.

    4. Cut the description.

    There is a place for description of course: when you’re describing something. But too often people attempt to give their ideas a little extra “oomph” by adding a whole bunch of adjectives and adverbs around it, burying the idea itself beneath a mass of irrelevant detail. Cut to the chase and leave the descriptive language for when its needed.

    5. Communication is job one.

    Sometimes when you’re writing something or speaking, you’ll have the urge to “step up” the language because what you’re saying doesn’t sound pretty enough. This means it’s working. Remember that, unless you’re writing a poem or a ballad, your first priority isn’t to impress people with the beauty of your prose but to communicate an idea to them.

    6. Don’t be afraid of “you” and “me”.

    Another way that people use language to hide their ideas in a vain attempt to sound impressive is to write in a distant, impersonal tone. While there are some forms of writing where this is necessary – journalism, for example, or clinical reports – a lot of writing and speech can be made more approachable by embracing the first person. Using “I” and “me” gives your readers or listeners something – someone –to attach the ideas you’re expressing to a real person, making them more concrete and more human.

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    Likewise, you can engage your audience more fully by speaking directly to and about them, instead of about “one” or even “we”. Instead of putting your examples in the third person, address them directly to your reader or listener by using “you”.

    Remember, no matter how good your ideas, if you can’t communicate them clearly you may as well not have them. Speak plainly and be heard!

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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