Communicating Ideas Effectively With Words

Executives often believe that complexity is a sign of intelligence. They think, If my ideas are difficult to understand then I have a superior intelligence.

This seduction to complexity is found especially in written communication: emails, memos, reports and slides.

Author of On Writing Well, William Zinsser explains, “Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.”

Zinsser explains that the four tenets of writing are clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity.

Clarity: Clear writing doesn’t happen by accident. It takes effort, focus and discipline. Clear writing reflects a clear mind; a clear mind requires a thorough understanding about the ideas you’re communicating. As a general rule, avoid euphemisms, jargon, fad words and clichés. Gobbledygook kills clear writing.

Simplicity: Simplicity also takes great effort. Paul Higham, the former chief marketing officer of Wal-Mart had a sign in his office: It takes more effort to keep things simple than it does to allow them to become complicated. Simplicity rarely emerges in your first draft. Fight for simplicity. Don’t settle for less.

Brevity: With our information-swamped culture, brevity and conciseness are required if you want your words to be read. Brevity requires focus and sacrifice. Don’t use three words when one word will do. First drafts of any writing tend to be verbose. To achieve brevity in written communication, review your writing multiple times.

Humanity: Organizations are made of people. Real people are going to read your writing. Yet organizations often write in cold, sterile ways, with a hint of pomposity. As Zinsser reminds us, “You only have to remember that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like ‘profitability,’ or with Latinate nouns like ‘utilization’ and ‘implementation,’ or with inert constructions in which nobody can be visualized doing something: ‘pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage.’”

Writing with clarity, simplicity, brevity and humanity takes courage, patience and dedication. The results of writing well speak for themselves.

Note: Zinsser’s On Writing Well should be required reading for every executive. Take special note of Chapter 16 on business writing.