My mother was frying eggs for my breakfast in 1980, after my first semester in Biochemistry. I thanked her by saying “Excellent, I love denatured albumin.” The look on her face conveyed that I was overly clever and obnoxious.
Today I interact with people from multiple companies, from multiple countries, each with language and lingo and acronyms, often assuming their listeners know what they refer to. Unhelpful. Frustrating.
Use simple words. Listener understanding is far more important than self-satisfying cleverness. There are few if any memorable quotes studded with words like obsequious, multifarious, internecine, cynosure, solipsistic, and peripatetic. Want to get your message across? Simple words, clear meaning – avoid any wording which makes the listener say “Huh?” to themselves.
Use the right word. Words have meaning and tone. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” (Mark Twain) Make conscious choices about specific words.
Use active sentences and short sentences. Kill passive phrasing. Drop the hedging phrases like “I could be wrong, but…” Chop longer sentences into shorter sentences. My favorite rule in Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” is “Omit needless words.”
Use tools to check readability. Microsoft Outlook and Word have built-in tools for readability statistics. Or you can use one of several free readability tools online. Aim for a 5th-to-8th grade reading level for general audiences (which is what newspapers do). A higher reading level may be ok for a specialized audience.
Use repetition. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth repeating. Follow Winston Churchill’s advice: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”
Use a large dose of humility. Constrain your vocabulary and stop trying to impress people. Clarity and simplicity are worth the effort because no leadership happens apart from good communication. It’s not about you, but the message.