In my world, clarity is king
Updated: May 19, 2022
Have you ever looked at LinkedIn job postings? They really run the gamut from clear to clunky. Some lay out exactly what the job entails and who they are looking for, and others are jammed up with every buzzword you can think of but ultimately don’t make any sense. (Sometimes those are the jobs I think I should apply for because I think “Hmm, looks like that company really needs a writer!”)
Communication is key, and clarity is king. I’ve always admired experts and leaders who can explain complex topics in a way that’s accessible to the average person.
I moved away from Stillwater, Oklahoma, the year before the pandemic, and although I didn’t miss the tornadoes or windstorms or lack of a Target in our town, I did feel I was missing out on the leadership of one of the best mayors I’ve observed. His name is Will Joyce, and I so admire the way he communicates with his constituents.
When COVID hit and the hospitals were filling up, he was writing long, thoughtful passages on his Facebook page about why he was making the decisions he was making. He was transparent and, most important, caring. He answered questions from everybody – the supportive and critical, the knowledgeable and confused – right there on his Facebook page.
Sure, he had his detractors, but using his background as a lawyer, he backed up his decisions with rational thinking and thorough explanations, leaving no room for misunderstanding. I read his posts even though I no longer lived there. That’s how persuasive he was, and what advanced communication skills he exhibited. It’s not that he bowled everybody over with some big intellectual dissertation; his skill lay in his ability to meet people where they were.
One popular maxim of persuasive writing is that you should never underestimate the intelligence of your readers or overestimate their knowledge. That means assume the best of your audience, as far as their ability to understand, but don’t make assumptions about what they already know. Chances are you are on the inside of an issue, initiative, policy or brand, and your audience is not. They might not know all the lingo. They might not know the facts as intimately as you do.
When I teach journalism to college students, I remind them not to be shy about asking what they might think are dumb questions. If they are interviewing, say, a chemist who won a big award, that chemist may be one of the smartest scientists on the planet, but she might forget to explain things in a simple manner. The student’s job is to get her to distill it down to an eighth-grade level so that the student can then write about it in a way that would be readable to the average person. The average person does not know about nonpolar covalent bonds and valence shell electric pair repulsion theory. (I don’t, either. I just Googled “chemistry terms” to make a point.)
Using complex internal lingo of your industry or field to outsiders is not impressive. It doesn’t make people think, “Ooh, they must be doing something smart because I don’t understand it.” In reality, it’s a turnoff. People feel excluded and run away. The best communicators respect their audience enough to speak on their level. It can take more work, but it’s worth it.
Obfuscation is not a good communication strategy. A better strategy is this old chestnut: Keep it simple, stupid.