by Ken Neal | 2/2/15
Communication counts, particularly for information management professionals. Why? Because they often have to communicate how their programs can help drive success. To meet this and other challenges, I suggest honing six relatively simple skills. These include: be brief, be clear, be receptive, be strategic, be credible and be persuasive. I believe these skills function together — as an integrated system or “communications workflow”— adding up to much more than any one skill individually. Implemented together, they provide a powerful persuasive force that greatly increases your chance of getting what you want.
With these principles in mind, in this and my next two columns we’ll briefly examine each skill with a special focus on best practices for improving your next presentation or proposal. Let’s begin with the first two skills: be brief and be clear.
1. Be brief: how brief?
One guideline I follow is to remember that Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a masterpiece of brevity. One of the most famous speeches in American history, it totaled 270 words. Few people remember that it was so brief because he said what needed to be said with great eloquence and few words, and then he sat down.
Here’s another guideline. The Flesch Reading Ease Score and the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade Level measure your writing’s readability. Basically, these tests provide a method to calculate the difficulty of reading a section of text, as measured by the education level required of the reader. The Flesch Reading Ease Score is based on a complex formula that tallies what is referred to as a document’s readability score. The scores are plotted on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the easiest to read.
Because the Flesch Reading Ease Score takes into account sentence and word length, it indicates sentences longer than 21 words prove challenging and that when the average syllable count of words in a given text approached two, reading ease declines.1
Keeping these principles in mind, here are two tips for being brief:
- Cut extraneous words. Keep sentences to a maximum of 18 words. Here is an example:
- (Before) This year, after a careful fine-tuning of our records management budget, we were able to reduce our program costs by a grand total of $30,000 (26 words).
- (After) This year we saved $30,000 in records management program costs (10 words).
- Use one-syllable words. Use one-syllable words as often as possible. A fine example of this principle is Winston Churchill, particularly his speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. In the following excerpt, the majority of his words are one syllable. And though he breaks the rule of thumb I just previously highlighted about sentence length, he does so in a way that undeniably works:
- We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
2. Be clear: is my proposal full of jargon?
Years ago I was hired as a communications manager for a leading technology company. My new boss invited me to a departmental staff meeting that was scheduled a few days before I officially began work.
That morning I sat down, opened my notebook, clicked my pen and was ready to take notes. After about 15 minutes, I hadn’t written one word in my notebook. The reason: I didn’t understand anything the presenter was talking about. Despite my marketing background in technology, I was quickly drowning in a sea of technology terms, acronyms and jargon, none of which was clear to me. I continued to nod my head knowingly as the presenter rattled on about ISPs, VPNs, GUIs, ISDN, client/server configurations and peer-to-peer networks.
One jargon phrase was particularly baffling. The presenter kept referring to “the glass house.” I wondered about the glass house. What was it? Where was it located? I could have simply asked someone what this phrase meant, but I didn’t want to appear unprofessional.
Eventually I did ask and learned that there was nothing mystical about the glass house. At that time it referred to large windowed rooms that contained mainframe computers and other hardware devices necessary for data storage and processing. I often think of that meeting when I’m tempted to use jargon. Yes, it was appropriate for the audience in the room that morning. But if my goal is to clearly communicate something about mainframe computer environments to a general business audience, I’ll opt for plain language. It lowers the risk that my readers will feel the same way I did that morning.
One practice that I believe that supports clear communication is to avoid focusing on yourself. Focus on your audience instead. Tailor your content and delivery to their needs by asking four questions. Let’s imagine you are a records manager preparing to present to a senior executive audience. Here are the four questions.
- What am I trying to achieve? (I want management to approve the budget and resources that will enable our department to implement a records retention schedule.)
- How will my audience react to what I am trying to achieve? (They probably won’t listen because they don’t think my proposal is important.)
- Will my message be resisted? (Yes because the company has other pressing priorities right now.)
- What do I know about my audience that will help me tailor my message? (I know the senior executives want to minimize risk. To clarify the program’s importance, I can highlight a case history of what happened to an organization that did not implement an adequate records retention schedule and as a result, encountered legal difficulties that damaged its reputation.)
My next column will focus on the skills of being receptive and being strategic.
Ken Neal is a certified enterprise content management practitioner (ecmp) and fellow, corporate communications for Canon Business Process Services, a leader in managed services and technology. Ken is also author of “Six Key Communications Skills for Records and Information Managers” (2014, Elsevier)
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1. Jen McGahan, “Flesch Reading Ease: Seven Copywriting Tips that Keep People Reading.” Retrieved January 15, 2014 from http://myteamconnects.com/flesch-reading-ease-seven-copywriting-tips-that-keep-people-reading/.