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Clarify: The Power of Simple Language

November 10, 2013

Jeff Weintraub

IMG_1880A COLLEGE WRITING TEACHER taught me one of the best lessons I ever learned about clarity in communications: it is the primary responsibility of the writer to ensure that the reader understands – not the other way around.

Sounds pretty basic, right? But I can’t tell you how often I see people in many different modes of communication ignore this idea, if they’re even aware of it to begin with. They apparently assume everyone knows what they’re saying when they go down the rabbit hole of insider jargon. Anyone who doesn’t, they seem to figure, is just stupid or not really paying attention.

Of course, the context matters. At a science conference, a scientist is more likely – and probably well advised – to use highly technical language to describe the results of her latest research. That’s when the shorthand really helps speed up and, yes, clarify what the speaker is trying to get across.

And there’s no question that there’s a fine line between simplifying for clarity and sounding glib or shallow. Each situation is different and requires us to modulate our language to fit the occasion based on what we know about our audience.

But some of the best communicators recognize that, even within their own circle of experts, plain language is much more effective.

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has this figured out. Watch just about any video of him speaking and you’ll see about as plain-speaking a guy as you’re going to find. With a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science and a long string of accomplishments in high-tech industries, he certainly has the capacity to get geeky.

But that’s not what happens here in this interview he gave the Financial Times in 2006 in the wake of Google’s $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube.

Asked why this purchase was worth the money, Schmidt could have used terms like “market valuation,” “strategic integration,” “Web 2.0,” and so forth. But, even to pretty technically savvy readers of the FT, he explained simply that, first of all, Google’s got a great advertising model that will more than make up for the big money it paid for YouTube. Second, he said, video is where it’s at. Indeed, it’s the future, drawing growing volumes of users. (How right he was). He makes it sound so simple.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, is another with an extraordinary ability to make the complex understandable. Whether you agree with his sometimes confrontational views or not, you can learn a lot about clarity from his writing. Check him here.

I don’t want to pretend that this is easy. People like Schmidt and Krugman apparently have a natural gift for communicating, among other talents. Or maybe they acquired it, as many can, with hard work, regular practice and awareness of how they come off.

My suggestions:

  • Consider your audience. As I said, every situation is unique, and it’s up to the communicator to be as tuned in to what audiences will and won’t understand. Sometimes, as in a speech to a large and diverse audience, it’s tough to know precisely who is listening and what they know. In that case and others like it, you just have to make an educated guess and keep an eye, as best you can, on how they react. When developing a campaign, it’s ideal to use message and opinion research to figure out what kind of language is likely to resonate. That’s a more expensive and less spontaneous option, but sometimes, when the stakes are high enough, it’s a wise choice.
  • Metaphor. Nothing too surprising here, but often it’s best to explain the unfamiliar with the familiar – some kind of image or anecdote that neatly draws the basics from a more complicated idea.
  • Don’t tell them everything you know, just what they need to know. Most experts I’ve worked with who know a lot about their subject are brimming over with eagerness to share every thought and fact they’ve stored in their brain. To the uninitiated, that’s just too much to keep up with. The communicator needs instead to pare down all she knows to the bare essential. Dr. Susan Love did a masterful job of this a few years ago in the interview on NBC News about breast cancer research (see below) . She could have talked on and on about the technical details, disclaimers and exceptions. But knowing she only had a short window of time and a pretty diverse audience, she articulated her main message right away, dropped in one (and only one) illustrative statistic and cut right back to her main message. The result: clarity.
  • Take the gloves off and then go back and cut – again and again. If you’re writing (or even editing in your head quickly), start by putting all your ideas down. Don’t worry about the order or the logic or even good grammar and punctuation. Just get it all out. Then start paring down the ideas, sentences and individual words to something more concise and accessible. If you see a long cluster of words describing one idea, go back and see if you can say the same thing in fewer, shorter words. About, oh, 100 percent of the time, I find something in my own writing to cut. When you do, your language will be more powerful and, most importantly, understandable to the people you’re trying to reach.

Is that clear?

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