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Be Heard. Speak Plainly.

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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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    Last Updated on November 18, 2021

    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

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    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

    We all fall into the trap of judging a person’s character by their appearance. How wrong we are! All too often, the real character of the person only appears when some negative event hits them or you. Then you may see a toxic person emerging from the ruins and it is often a shock.

    A truly frightening example is revealed in the book by O’Toole in Bowman called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. A perfectly respectable, charming, well dressed neighbor was found to have installed a torture chamber in his garage where he was systematically abusing kidnapped women. This is an extreme example, but it does show how we can be totally deceived by a person’s physical appearance, manners and behavior.

    So, what can you do? You want to be able to assess personal qualities when you come into contact with colleagues, fresh acquaintances and new friends who might even become lifelong partners. You want to know if they are:

    • honest
    • reliable
    • competent
    • kind and compassionate
    • capable of taking the blame
    • able to persevere
    • modest and humble
    • pacific and can control anger.

    The secret is to reserve judgment and take your time. Observe them in certain situations; look at how they react. Listen to them talking, joking, laughing, explaining, complaining, blaming, praising, ranting, and preaching. Only then will you be able to judge their character. This is not foolproof, but if you follow the 10 ways below, you have a pretty good chance of not ending up in an abusive relationship.

    1. Is anger a frequent occurrence?

    All too often, angry reactions which may seem to be excessive are a sign that there are underlying issues. Do not think that every person who just snaps and throws his/her weight around mentally and physically is just reacting normally. Everyone has an occasional angry outburst when driving or when things go pear-shaped.

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    But if this is almost a daily occurrence, then you need to discover why and maybe avoid that person. Too often, anger will escalate to violent and aggressive behavior. You do not want to be near someone who thinks violence can solve personal or global problems.

    2. Can you witness acts of kindness?

    How often do you see this person being kind and considerate? Do they give money to beggars, donate to charity, do voluntary work or in some simple way show that they are willing to share the planet with about 7 billion other people?

    I was shocked when a guest of mine never showed any kindness to the weak and disadvantaged people in our town. She was ostensibly a religious person, but I began to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

    “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

    Abigail Van Buren

    3. How does this person take the blame?

    Maybe you know that s/he is responsible for a screw-up in the office or even in not turning up on time for a date. Look at their reaction. If they start blaming other colleagues or the traffic, well, this is an indication that they are not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.

    4. Don’t use Facebook as an indicator.

    You will be relieved to know that graphology (the study of that forgotten skill of handwriting) is no longer considered a reliable test of a person’s character. Neither is Facebook stalking, fortunately. A study showed that Facebook use of foul language, sexual innuendo and gossip were not reliable indicators of a candidate’s character or future performance in the workplace.

    5. Read their emails.

    Now a much better idea is to read the person’s emails. Studies show that the use of the following can indicate certain personality traits:

    • Too many exclamation points may reveal a sunny disposition
    • Frequent errors may indicate apathy
    • Use of smileys is the only way a person can smile at you
    • Use of the third person may reveal a certain formality
    • Too many question marks can show anger
    • Overuse of capital letters is regarded as shouting. They are a definite no-no in netiquette, yet a surprising number of  people still use them.

    6. Watch out for the show offs.

    Listen to people as they talk. How often do they mention their achievements, promotions, awards and successes? If this happens a lot, it is a sure indication that this person has an over-inflated view of his/her achievements. They are unlikely to be modest or show humility. What a pity!  Another person to avoid.

    7. Look for evidence of perseverance.

    A powerful indicator of grit and tenacity is when a person persists and never gives up when they really want to achieve a life goal. Look for evidence of them keeping going in spite of enormous difficulties.

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    Great achievements by scientists and inventors all bear the hallmark of perseverance. We only have to think of Einstein, Edison (who failed thousands of times) and Nelson Mandela to get inspiration. The US Department of Education is in no doubt about how grit, tenacity and perseverance will be key success factors for youth in the 21st century.

    8. Their empathy score is high.

    Listen to how they talk about the less fortunate members of our society such as the poor, immigrants and the disabled. Do you notice that they talk in a compassionate way about these people? The fact that they even mention them is a strong indicator of empathy.

    People with zero empathy will never talk about the disadvantaged. They will rarely ask you a question about a difficult time or relationship. They will usually steer the conversation back to themselves. These people have zero empathy and in extreme cases, they are psychopaths who never show any feelings towards their victims.

    9. Learn how to be socially interactive.

    We are social animals and this is what makes us so uniquely human. If a person is isolated or a loner, this may be a negative indicator of their character. You want to meet a person who knows about trust, honesty and loyalty. The only way to practice these great qualities is to actually interact socially. The great advantage is that you can share problems and celebrate success and joy together.

    “One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.”

    Stendhal

     10. Avoid toxic people.

    These people are trying to control others and often are failing to come to terms with their own failures. Typical behavior and conversations may concern:

    • Envy or jealousy
    • Criticism of partners, colleagues and friends
    • Complaining about their own lack of success
    • Blaming others for their own bad luck or failure
    • Obsession with themselves and their problems

    Listen to these people talk and you will quickly discover that you need to avoid them at all costs because their negativity will drag you down. In addition, as much as you would like to help them, you are not qualified to do so.

    Now, having looked at some of the best ways to judge a person, what about yourself? How do others see you? Why not take Dr. Phil’s quiz and find out. Can you bear it?

    Featured photo credit: Jacek Dylag via unsplash.com

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