We all need to communicate effectively every day. Our work doesn’t speak for itself; we need to collaborate, inspire, and build relationships. To do this, we need to be able to communicate clearly.
As a shy child and introverted adult, externalizing my perspective never came naturally to me. It still doesn’t. In high school, I had the dubious honor of being cast in the only non-speaking role in drama class. Despite this, today, I spend most of my day, every day, communicating with people. In some ways, my day job is communication.
Communication is a learned skill. I’m certainly no Obama, but over time, I’ve collected a set of tools that have helped me communicate more effectively. Let’s dive in.
Rule of Three
Three is a magic number in communication. From stories, like The Three Musketeers and Three Little Pigs, to colloquialisms like “blood, sweat, and tears,” three is everywhere. There’s even a Latin phrase, omne trium perfectum, or everything that comes in threes is perfect.
Why is this? Humans beings seek both patterns and simplicity. We’re pattern-recognition machines, always looking for signals among the noise. Simultaneously, we have limited working memory. We can’t remember a list of fifteen things or even a list of five. But we can remember three, which is the minimum number of objects needed to make a pattern. Three is concise, persuasive, and memorable.
When you say, “there are three reasons we should do this,” people pay attention. They know that three is easy to digest and remember. And you, the speaker, are forced to structure your argument succinctly and compellingly. When you put seven bullet-points in a document or slide, people’s eyes glaze over. When you craft a concise list of three, they digest it. Within reason, in verbal or written communication, distill what you have to say down to three.
Answer, Explain, Example
I heard this from a former LinkedIn executive. The premise is simple but powerful. When answering a question, give the answer, then elaborate, then provide an example. That’s it.
By answering the question immediately, you’re getting to the point and giving the person who asked a concise answer. Then you’re supporting it with your rationale. Finally, you’re backing it up with a real example.
Structure, Say, Summarize
“Structure, Say, Summarize” is a tool I use when communicating something nuanced. The basis is this: First, structure how you’re going to make the statement. Second, make the statement. Third, summarize your position and the “so what.”
- Structure: It’s a risk, but there are three reasons we should do this.
- Say: The first reason is X, the second is Y, the third reason is Z.
- Summarize: I know nothing is guaranteed. But, given these reasons, we’re missing an opportunity to grow by not doing this.
This structure is akin to a Dale Carnegie quote: “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”
Verbal communication is messy, and it’s difficult for people to follow spoken paragraphs. Even when you don’t have a tidy list of three, starting with “there are a few reasons,” making stating a few points, then summarizing your view is a powerful way to communicate more clearly.
But don’t use this all the time, or you’ll seem like a robot.
Feelings Last Longer Than Words
People will often forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. You might have made a logically sound argument, but if the recipient didn’t feel enthused, inspired, or understood, it probably won’t stick.
Feelings are why the world’s most iconic brands are so influential. We don’t remember every detail, every line of copy, or every number. But they make us feel a certain way, and feelings are sticky.
If you want to inspire action or lead a team, logic is important, but so is ensuring people are motivated when they walk away from an interaction. People won’t remember everything you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
Pause and Give Context
Never assume that everyone has the same context that you do. There’s a magical and straightforward sequence of words for this: “Let me give some context to make sure we’re on the same page.”
In any given conversation, everyone has a perspective formulated from a different set of inputs. The more closely aligned you can get these inputs, the more effective your communication will be. Shared context helps avoid “talking past each other” situations.
One of the tenets of effective communication is over-communication. Most people associate this with being annoying or spam. In my experience, that isn’t true. Over-communication is about never assuming that people have the same context that you do.
To quote Ben Horowitz: “… err on the side of clarity vs. explaining the obvious.”
“So What” Is Your One Key Takeaway
For every piece of communication that you create, find the “so what.” Whether a presentation, document, or slide, if someone asked, “so what?”, what would you say?
Whatever the answer to that question is, make sure it comes across clearly. The solution to “so what?” usually involves articulates the implication for the audience.
An easily applicable tip here is to title your slides or headers with the “so what” for that particular slide or section. Hone in on the most important takeaway and the implication for the audience — why should they care?