We all make snap decisions. Many issues we decide on the fly should be made that way. Fax the document or e-mail it? Delegate the assignment to a junior colleague or do it myself? Do I want fries with that?
Unfortunately, we also make snap decisions about important matters. Which client’s work is a priority? Is Jack the best person for this assignment?
Since everyone makes snap decisions, we each have a better chance of influencing others if we have clear, strong messages that can be easily understood. A clear message is short, uses simple language, and is focused on the needs of the audience.
Keep it short
Limit your key message to one sentence, preferably fewer than 17 words. Because we often deal with complex issues, we have a matrix of information spinning in our heads. Breaking up the content into smaller sentences will help your listeners or readers.
You have a key point to make at every meeting. Ask yourself, “Will my audience be able to repeat my key message to someone else after this meeting?” If they can’t, you will not have the impact you want.
Read the following and then turn your eyes away from the page and try to repeat it aloud:
Everyone’s active participation in the company’s events is crucial to helping us develop a conscious and cohesive company culture that we can all be proud of and that will help us attract high quality professionals.
You can’t do it. It’s too long.
Now try the same with the following:
We hope to see you at as many firm functions as possible.
Save the “whys” and the details for other sentences. Allow the key message to stand on its own.
Use simple language
Big words do not impress anyone; big ideas do. In a professional setting, you don’t get graded on being smart; you get graded on having impact. That means getting people to take action based on your great ideas. Get to your content. Your goal when communicating is not to be cute or clever. Your goal is to be clear.
Avoid industry jargon. We all spend most of our time talking to other people who do what we do. Therefore, we forget how much jargon creeps into our vocabulary. Jargon is efficient in front of the right audiences and counterproductive in other settings. Ask yourself, “Will this audience know what this term, this reference or this acronym means?” If you’re in doubt, use other language.
Focus on the audience
Your message is never about you, and it is rarely about your content. It is always about how your audience — your listener or reader — needs to use your content. Before any meeting, ask yourself, “What does this audience need to get out of this discussion?” If you focus on why they are present, you will instinctively hone your argument based on their needs.
Let’s say you are meeting with your team to get them on board with a new initiative.
A “you”-focused version would be:
“I’ve looked at this situation carefully. Today I want to tell you why we’re approaching this problem this way.”
You’ve just told your audience that you’re going to focus on what you’ve done and what you “want.” Chances are few people care about what you’ve done. Even fewer care about what you want. More likely, they’re concerned about what the new initiative means to them. Start by talking about them.
An audience-focused version:
“You’re all concerned about how we’re going to deal with this issue. I thought it would be helpful to you if we discussed our plan and how it affects you.”
Then follow through on that promise. Tell them where you’re headed. There’s always time for more history later in the discussion.
Follow your main point with, “Would more detail on this issue be helpful to you?” The audience’s response will tell you what details are important to share.
Everyone makes snap decisions. You can ensure that snap decision is better informed if you keep your key message short, easy to understand, and focused on the audience’s needs.
Jay Sullivan, who practiced law in both the public and private sectors, is a partner at Exec|Comm, a communication skills consulting firm that works corporate professionals. Learn more from his profile on the Exec|Comm website, on LinkedIn, or e-mail Sullivan.