How to be an Outstanding Communicator

Today’s post on how to be an outstanding communicator is from Martin Shovel. Martin is a writer, speechwriter, cartoonist and communications expert with a special interest in new media and social networking. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog and has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth.

Martin’s article is somewhat long, but it is insightful, very well written and well worth your time. It was originally published in August 2010 in the U.K.’s Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors’ magazine.

Choose your words

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The message from recruitment agencies, employer surveys and the like is familiar, loud and clear: you must be an outstanding communicator if you want to get to the top of your profession. Technical audit skills and practical experience are, of course, essential, but they will only take you so far up the greasy pole; to make it those extra few slippery feet to the very top you’re going to have to find a way of transforming yourself from a good communicator into an outstanding one.

Keep it simple

Outstanding communicators distinguish themselves by the way they use language. The first thing that strikes you when you listen to an outstanding communicator speak is the simplicity of their language: they use words you can understand in a way that makes it easy to follow what they’re saying.

But simple is hard, and takes courage. It takes courage because it goes against the grain of workplace communications. In organisations, language is often used as a protective veil whose main purpose is to cover the speaker’s back rather than enlighten their audience. A concoction of jargonistic words arranged into convoluted sentences is an effective way of covering up ideas that are half-baked, obvious, or trivial.

Many people mistakenly equate this kind of overcomplicated, difficult-to-follow language with cleverness. The following example – though satirical – makes the point:

“Undue multiplicity of personnel assigned either concurrently or consecutively to a single function involves deterioration of quality in the resultant product as compared with the product of the labor of an exact sufficiency of personnel.” Masterson, J. and Brooks Phillips, W., Federal Prose, 1948, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina

What effect does language like this have? It intimidates, it excludes, it frustrates, and, ultimately, it wastes time (and therefore money!). It embodies everything that is the antithesis of outstanding communication. It is puffed up, self-serving – and, in the final analysis, like the emperor’s new clothes it leaves its author looking naked and foolish. Translated into the language of clarity and simplicity, the same gobbledygook becomes: “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Beyond plain English

Clear, plain English is an essential part of good communication. It is the language of instructions that are easy to follow, intelligible contracts, and business letters that read as if they’ve been written by an articulate and sympathetic human, not a machine. But outstanding communicators, although masters of plain English, come into their own when they move beyond it.

Clear explanation is the forte of the good communicator. But clear explanation alone isn’t going to be enough to persuade people to vote for you, or to inspire them to follow you into the heat of battle. You need something more: you need to be able to communicate in a way that appeals not just to minds, but to hearts as well. When Barack Obama began his bid for the US presidency in 2007 he was a rank outsider, an unknown. It was the power of his oratory that opened the doors of the White House to him. Writing back in 2008, The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote that, moments after listening to Obama’s New Hampshire campaign speech, “the speech dissolved into pure feeling, which stayed with me for days.”

Warming up your language

Modern neuroscience has demonstrated conclusively that we feel our way into decisions. Numerous case studies have shown that people with damage to the parts of their brain responsible for emotional reactions are unable to make decisions at all. It seems that the rational mind working by itself dithers endlessly as it weighs up the various possible reasons for taking one course of action rather than another.

So, to be an outstanding communicator you have to begin by engaging people’s feelings. Once people care about what you’re saying, you have their attention. And the key to making people care is your choice of words. Words are the wrapping for your communications, and if you want your audience to unwrap what you say, you need to warm up your language.

The notion that words can be warm or cold might sound strange, but let’s test it out by returning to the piece of gobbledygook I quoted earlier. Like a lot of organisational speak, it’s crammed full of long words of Latin origin: words like ‘multiplicity’, ‘personnel’, ‘assigned’, ‘concurrently’ and so on – I‘m sure you get the drift.

Imagine for a moment that you’re at a friend’s party and you find yourself chatting with someone you’ve never met before, over a glass of wine. How would you feel if your new acquaintance (another Latinate word) spoke to you using long Latinate words. I suspect that, like most other people, you’d experience him as distant, cold and, given the context, weird.

But what makes ‘friend’ a warmer word than ‘acquaintance’, and ‘many’ a warmer word than ‘multiplicity’? Well, here’s a clue: say the word ‘acquaintance’ to a young child and they’ll give you a blank look. But follow it with the word ‘friend’ and their eyes will light up as the word conjures up an image of someone they love.

Words like ‘friend’, ‘cook’, and ‘dog’ are common everyday words; and, like most common everyday words, their origins lie in Old, and Middle, English. These also happen to be the first words we learn as children – they mark our entry into the realm of language, and verbal communication. Our relationship to them is a visual one, because our first encounter with them is one of pointing, touching or physically interacting with the thing they represent. They embody that magical moment when things become words.

Visual language

By contrast, words of Latinate origin are latecomers to the English language party – both historically, and in the language acquisition of an individual. This explains why a word like ‘dog’ brings to mind an image, while a word like ‘canine’ probably doesn’t. Outstanding communicators favour words of English origin because they are warm and visual – they help other people ‘see’ what you mean.

A quotation ascribed to Winston Churchill offers a good rule of thumb for choosing warm, visual words: “broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” It’s no accident that the final lines from one of Churchill’s most famous and stirring speeches (“we shall fight on the beaches”) is full of “old words” – “beaches”, “landing grounds”, “fields”, “streets” and “hills”.

The multisensory power of concrete language

Latinate words are cold and abstract; Old English words are warm and concrete. Concrete words aren’t just visual, they are multisensory – they engage all our senses. When Churchill used words like “beaches” and “fields”, he knew that they would invoke a variety of sensory responses in his audience: the sight of the sand and the azure blue sky; the sound of the waves lapping on the seashore and the shriek of the gulls; the smell of the sea; the salty taste on their tongue; and the feeling of warm grains of sand on the soles their feet.

Advertisers constantly exploit the power of multisensory concrete language. They don’t try to sell us just any old generic chicken. No, it’s not just chicken: they tell us it’s actually farm-reared, organic, golden Wiltshire farm chicken. Carefully selected picture words like these are designed to give us an experience – one that appeals to our tastebuds and stomachs, as well as our intellects.

Outstanding communicators don’t tell, they show. Statistics are abstractions that leave us cold. If you want to bring home the full horror of a natural disaster, you don’t talk about the thousands of people who have perished, and the unimaginable scale of the humanitarian disaster visited upon those who’ve survived. Instead, you put the disaster into a human context by making it concrete, and you do this by focusing on the story of a single family.

Story and metaphor

Study after study shows that people are very poor at understanding risk. And disasters like the financial meltdown and the BP oil spill raise the question of just how effective risk experts are at communicating what they know about risk to non-specialists. Outstanding communicators understand the limits of statistical data – they know that in most instances it just goes over the heads of a lay audience.

The most effective way of communicating risk is to get people to feel it, and the way to do this is to use story and metaphor to create an imaginative experience of what the risk is like – one that makes sense in terms of what people already understand. To most lay people, a statistic like: 50 million acres of rainforest are cut down every year, doesn’t mean too much. It doesn’t sound good, but it’s far too abstract for a non-specialist to grasp.

Most people don’t know what an acre looks like, and they certainly have no experience of quantities as large as 50 million. On hearing a statistic like this, neither their brains nor their emotions are engaged. So the chances of keeping their attention are slim at best. Al Gore faced the problem of communicating this statistic in his campaign to save the rainforest, and being an outstanding communicator he chose to dramatise the statistics by transforming them into a story-like metaphor.

This is how he did it:

“We lose one acre of rainforest every second. Imagine a giant invader from space with football-field sized feet, clomping across the rainforests of the world – going boom, boom, boom every second. Would we react? Well, that’s essentially what’s going in the rainforests right now!”

Putting it all together

Gore’s transformation of a dry statistic into a story metaphor that helps people experience as well as understand the enormity of the situation, exemplifies all the elements that make an outstanding communicator. From the outset, Gore doesn’t allow his expertise to act as a barrier between himself and his audience – after all, the word “communication” originates from a Latin word meaning “to share”.

Rather than blinding them with science, he puts himself into his audience’s shoes and looks for a way of helping them understand what they don’t know (the statistic) in terms of something they’re familiar with (football fields and B movies about invaders from space). He uses familiar, short, concrete, visual words – and he makes the simple complex without compromising its integrity.

So the key to transforming yourself into an outstanding communicator is to make your language as visual and concrete as possible. And the best way of doing this is to heed Churchill’s advice and go for short, everyday words, rather than difficult-to-understand long ones. Always think carefully about who you’re speaking to, and never allow your expertise to shroud your message in fog. Finally, use story and metaphor to bring what you say to life – and always remember that outstanding communicators move hearts as well as minds.

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14 Replies to “How to be an Outstanding Communicator”

  1. Great post. Very thought-provoking. And good point about word choice – gotta love those short, familiar, old English words. In an odd coincidence, I had just read this article about the English language from the OED: http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/the-oec-facts-about-the-language
    If you scroll down you’ll see Martin’s point borne out – the 25 most often used nouns, verbs and adjectives in the English language are all short and mostly of old English origin. I find particularly compelling their analysis of the verbs: “It seems that English prefers terse, ancient words to describe actions or occurrences.” They’re our workhorses. It’s a mistake to use big latin words when old little english ones do the job just as well or better.
    (My personal pet peeve is the word “utilize”).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Mary and thanks for the link to the great site. If you’re feeling up to it (and promise not to peek at the link that you just sent), you can try to see how many of those top 100 words in English you can recall by going to this link.
      I keep telling people that simple writing (and speaking) is always the best best.
      John
      PS – My pet peeve is “synergies”. Ugh!

  2. I’ll take advantage of the moment to add one more thing – I do a lot of work “translating” science into English – and as in the example of Al Gore, Martin’s advice to use metaphor is really good. Unfortunately many scientists won’t agree to this, because they are convinced the precision and facts of their work are paramount, and the fiction of the metaphor goes against all their training. They’re not willing to compromise here in order to communicate. I wish someone could convince them otherwise, because then their talks and writing would be so much more engaging.
    That’s all. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks, Mary. I work with a lot of scientists and technical people and I make a concerted effort to drive home the point that technicalities are important but that messages need to be shaped so as to be absorbed by the audiences. So I stress storytelling and other techniques to make the message memorable. Nancy Duarte talks about this in her book, Resonate.
      Another fantastic book about getting a message across is “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. I highly recommend it.
      Cheers!
      John

  3. Great insights! I am also a film-buff. Take a look at Atticus Finch’s (Gregory Peck) closing argument in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Clarence Darrow’s (Orson Welles) summation in “Compulsion”, the interrogation of William Jennings Bryan (Frederic March) by Clarence Darrow (Spencer Tracy) in “Inherit the Wind”, and Tom Joad’ s (Henry Fonda) soliloquy in the “The Grapes of Wrath.”

  4. Well said, Martin and John! Using simple words is so important. You might find this list useful, as it shows simpler equivalents for long words and phrases in common use.
    And recently I read a great post on the Doris and Bertie blog that suggests using more verbs (and less nouns and adjectives) than in what I call “brochure speak”.
    Here’s to the power of simple language!

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