Have you ever experienced death by PowerPoint? How about your boss asking you to read the endless business plan?
We’ve all been there. A well-intentioned person puts pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, and they cram everything they know into a document. Their intention is to share important information, but too much information is almost as bad as too little. When it comes to communication, there are three levels:
- Stoic silence
If you’ve ever dwelled in the silent vortex of no information, you’ve known the chilling effect the absence of communication has on organizations and relationships. When people don’t know what’s going on, they feel disconnected from the task at hand, and disconnected from each other. Malaise ensues.
On the flip side of no communication is regurgitation. Decks with 37 slides, business plans with 15 different strategies. It’s not quite as bad as non-communication, but it’s not particularly helpful either. It’s not over-communication; it’s overly wordy communication. In the face of 17 goals, no one knows which one is most important.
The most effective communication is to distill the information down into the most important points, and communicate it with brevity. It’s challenging because you have to sort and prioritize your information, discarding anything not absolutely essential.
The famous quote, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter,” illustrates why brevity is so difficult. It takes more time.
The quote was first attributed in writing to French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The statement (in French) appeared in a letter in a collection called “Lettres Provinciales” in the year 1657. The quote was also later attributed to Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill, among others. No doubt these excellent writers repeated and internalized it, because they all know, being concise requires more mental acuity than simply blathering on.
When I work with senior leaders, it’s always challenging to help them distill their strategy and goals into the most salient points. Here are the questions I use to help leaders be concise with their teams. The same questions can be used if you’re in the middle of an organization, communicating with your volunteer group, or giving instructions to kids. Before you speak, or go for the slide deck, ask yourself:
Is this essential for my audience?
And I mean absolutely essential. If you have 10 top priorities, you might as well have none. Strategy is about making choices. It means saying yes, and saying no. If you want others to take prioritize, don’t list more than three things.
Is this relevant to my audience?
Nothing obliterates a solid point more than endless data before and afterwards. Your CEO doesn’t need all the details of your job, your customer doesn’t need to know the inner workings of your software, and your spouse doesn’t need every detail of your conversation with the neighbor. Share what’s relevant to the listener, not what you find interesting. People don’t need as much background as you might think.
What do I want my audience to do?
Whenever I work leaders on goals and strategy, the litmus test I use is, “I’m a middle manager, I just heard this. It’s Monday morning, what do I do?” Good communicators connect the dots for people. They draw the line from the big picture to daily actions.
Words matter, the less you choose, the more they stand out.