How to Speak and Write Clearly – 5 Quick Tips

Nick Morgan knows a great deal about communicating. After having served as a speech writer for former Virginia Governor Chuck Rob, Nick continued to build his communications credentials by editing the Harvard Management Communications Letter, coaching numerous CEO’s on the finer elements of public speaking and writing best selling books like “Trust Me” and “Working the Room“. Nick has also had the unenviable task of trying to make me a better speaker. I’m thrilled to have him as a guest blogger.

In an era when everyone feels overwhelmed with information and many think that their attention is the most precious gift they can offer someone, clarity of speech and writing is essential.  If you’re going to ask a friend, a colleague, or an audience to pay attention to you, you need to have your thoughts in order.  Following are 5 simple but powerful ideas for improving your clarity in both areas.

1.  In writing, start with the known and move to the unknown.   In writing, you want to begin with something that your audience knows and agrees with you upon, by and large – call it a situationAssociated Widgets has had many years of uninterrupted growth.  That will get your audience nodding its head.  Then, you want to hit them with the news, your reason for writing – the complicationBut these last two quarters have seen tough competition from Global Undercutters.  Then ask the question that is the purpose of your communiqué:  What can we do to respond to this incursion?  And then you’re set up to answer the question in the body of your memo, or proposal, or whatever:  I’m proposing a new kind of widget, priced at half the competition’s price, to grab market share back.  The rest of the proposal will describe this widget.  And it can do so in a series of sub-heads answering the inevitable questions about cost, design, manufacturing, and so on, each of them following the same structure of situation – complication – question – answer.

2.  In both speaking and writing, get the bad news out of the way first.  We’ve all made the classic mistake of pulling our punches – saving the bad news for last – because we’re reluctant to hurt someone’s feelings, or distress people unduly.  But if you hold out on people, they’re going to feel sandbagged.  Don’t do it.  Always get the bad news (when you have some to deliver) out of the way first.

3.  In speaking, begin by answering the question why.   Audiences come into speeches asking why – why am I here, why does this matter, why should I pay attention?  If you answer that question quickly, in the first 3 minutes of the presentation, you’ll avoid a host of troubles and give your audience a reason to rejoice.   You don’t answer that ‘why’ question in detail, just at a high level to orient everyone.  Today, I’m going to talk to you about how we as a company can re-launch ourselves, take on Global Undercutters, and win our market share back.

4.  In speaking, talk first about the problem, then the solution.  The Ancient Greeks figured this one out; this format has worked for persuasive speeches for 2500 years.  Don’t mess with it.  Ask yourself, what is the problem that the audience has for which my information is the solution?  Then talk about that problem first (after you orient the audience at a high level – see #3).  Follow it with the solution.  You want to spend roughly the same amount of time on each.  So, if you’ve got 30 minutes, spend a minute or two orienting the audience, then 10 minutes on the problem, 10 on the solution, and that leaves about 8 minutes for Q and A.  Done.

5.  If speaking off the cuff, give a headline, support it, and repeat the headline.  If you have to give extemporaneous remarks, or if you find yourself in the middle of Q and A, then give yourself a few long seconds to come up with a point of view.  State it.  Then give some reasons – 3 is a good number – for why your point of view is the right one.  That’s the proof.  Then restate your POV in a concluding headline.  I believe that Associated Widgets is well-positioned to take back the market share we’ve recently lost to Global Undercutters.  That’s because, 1…..2……3…… And that’s why I’m so confident that we will win in the battle with GU. 

If you follow these 5 simple rules, you’ll find yourself speaking and writing with clarity and persuasiveness.

For more information, see my blog:  For further reading, check outThe Pyramid Principle, by Barbara Minto; Style:  Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams; and Revising Prose, by Richard A. Lanham.

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