The Importance Of Saying What You Mean: You May Not Be Doing As Well As You Think

Order Reprints


Have you ever been frustrated by a colleague's or employee’s failure to do a task the way you expected it to be done? In that case, you may want to consider the possibility that the fault was your own — that you may have failed to make your instructions unmistakably clear.

The ability to communicate with precision does not come naturally to most of us, regardless of the extent of our education. That's unfortunate, since virtually all authorities agree that the ability to express our thoughts clearly is an essential ingredient in the recipe for successful business management.

You may be familiar with this old parlor game: One person begins the game by whispering a simple story to a second person. That person, in turn, whispers the story, exactly as he or she understood it, to the next person. This continues until everyone in the game has heard it. The last person to hear the story retells it aloud so that it can be compared to the original.

Inevitably, the story related by the last person is far different from the original. The more people in the game, the more severely the story will be distorted. Despite the participants’ genuine attempts to pass the story along accurately, the final version will bear little resemblance to the original.

That exercise is only a game, of course. Still, it provides a clear example of the difficulties faced by anyone who must communicate effectively and persuasively with others.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Industrial psychologists studying the effectiveness of communications among humans uncovered an astonishing weakness in this vital area of our lives. Much of the problem is the result of the way many of us choose our words. Even professionals known for a clinical approach to other facets of their work fall prey to the temptation of relying on the first words that occur to them. Too often, they assume that everyone will — or should — understand everything they say or write.

In their book, “The Reader over Your Shoulder,” authors Grave and Hodge observed, “It is remarkable that nearly all scientists, at the point where they turn from mathematical or chemical language to English, seem to feel relieved of any further obligation to precise terminology.”

We may be inclined to forgive such a shortcoming among laboratory scientists, but that’s an indulgence that business owners and managers living in the real world cannot afford.

Consider this case where a communication failure created a serious problem: A manager came up with an idea he felt would save his company money on shipping costs. To present his suggestion to top management, he needed a list showing the volume of sales to his company’s best customers.

He instructed his assistant to prepare a list of the company’s 100 largest customers. “Be sure to rank them by sales volume,” he instructed. After days of research, the assistant proudly handed in, not what the boss wanted, but a list of the 100 largest companies doing business with the firm, ranked by their own sales volume.

Not only was the work of several days a total loss, but the incident also generated both resentment on the part of the assistant and an unjustified lack of confidence on the part of the manager toward his assistant. Effective communication between the two became even more difficult in the future.

Pointing the finger of blame for incidents of this type probably isn’t worth the effort. Still, there is little doubt that the heaviest share of responsibility for effective communication rests with the person assigning the task or making a sales pitch — the “transmitter,” not the “receiver.”

Effective Communication Can Be Taught and Learned

The good news in all this is that communication is a skill that can be taught and learned. Everyone can become better through study and focus. Good communication skills improve self-confidence and the ability to speak persuasively and with conviction. Poor communication results in the opposite: low self-esteem and a much higher risk of misunderstanding on the part of the “receiver.”

Some years ago, a detailed study of qualifications revealed that a broad vocabulary was the most often seen characteristic in successful executives and sales professionals.

That’s not surprising when you consider that words are the only tools we have for communicating our thoughts. Because business professionals must develop a trusted relationship with prospects, the ability to express thoughts with clarity and precision is an obvious advantage.

Dr. Wilfred Funk in his classic book, “Words of Power,” said, “Success and vocabulary go hand-in-hand.”

Another American educator, Dr. John Dewey, said simply, “Thought is impossible without words.”

British philosopher Henry Thomas made a similar observation when he wrote, “Words are the materials out of which we build our thoughts.”

These sentiments, echoed by countless experts, lead to an inescapable conclusion: Since words are necessary in the formation of our thoughts, an expanded vocabulary will improve the quality of our thinking. Funk stated the matter plainly when he wrote, “The more words you know, the more clearly and powerfully you will think.”

Selling is a Form of Communication

Obviously, business managers who must rely on communications with others need to build a better-than-average vocabulary. Nuances — subtle but important shades of meaning — are conveyed only when the precisely correct word is chosen. To say “cheap” when “inexpensive” would more correctly describe your thought could, under some circumstances, lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding. To describe a prospect’s hometown as “sleepy” might not be so wise a choice as to label it “tranquil.”

There are more than 600,000 words in the English language (no one knows exactly how many). However, you need master but a tiny fraction of that number to develop an effective vocabulary. Shakespeare, who used more words than any other writer, wrote his works using about 16,000 different words. The average professional writer of today will use only a small fraction of that number.

You should not take the job of building a powerful vocabulary to mean the relentless addition of exotic words and business jargon just for the sake of sheer numbers — quite to the contrary. The most appropriate word will seldom be the longest or most obscure one. The possessor of an unnecessarily large vocabulary runs a constant risk of being misunderstood.

The trick is to master enough words to allow clear expression of your thoughts without resorting to the use of words that are beyond the understanding of all but English professors.

As important as a strong vocabulary is, it cannot do the job by itself. The ability to select the best word is an important first step in communicating effectively with colleagues, employees and customers, but it’s not enough. You must also consider the person to whom you are speaking or writing and the circumstances under which you are attempting to communicate.

That’s because many of the words in our language do not have inherently correct meanings. Most authorities agree that popular usage by educated adults is the measure by which we establish the meaning of words. This helps to keep our language “alive” — flexible enough to change as we change. However, it also keeps the danger of unclear meaning ever-present.

Avoid Abstract Words Wherever Possible

In general, concrete words such as “pencil,” “automobile,” “tree,” and “sofa” are far less likely to be misunderstood than are abstract words.

It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that a wide range of interpretations may be applied to such abstractions as “high,” “fast,” “satisfactory” and that old legal bugaboo “reasonable.”

The word “justice,” for example, may suggest a clear meaning to a Harvard-educated lawyer. To someone who was born and raised in a ghetto, however, it is likely to have a radically different meaning. To a low-income wage earner, a brand-new Ford or Chevrolet may be a prohibitively “expensive” luxury. To a person accustomed to buying new Mercedes, a Ford or Chevrolet is likely to be considered “inexpensive.”

Thus, the more you know about the person on the receiving end of your communication, the more likely you will be able to communicate effectively with that person. That’s why so many successful business managers make it a point to learn as much as possible about every employee and customer. This is not to suggest that you become an amateur psychologist, but only that you consider the perspective of the person on the other end of your communications.

So, don’t forget: whenever possible, use a concrete word in preference to an abstract one. Use a short word in preference to a longer one.

In written communications, it is especially important to avoid wordiness. Some people who do a fine job in oral communication fail miserably when they try to put their thoughts in writing. While there are many reasons for this, the tendency to resort to cumbersome phraseology is one of the most common failures in written communications.

In “The Elements of Style,” author William Strunk, Jr. provides us with a masterful exhibition of his own advice. He wrote, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

You could search a lifetime and not find a better illustration of this point.

Communication among humans is comparable to the interaction between a radio transmitter and receiver. No matter how perfect the output of the transmitter, actual communication cannot take place until both units are tuned to the same frequency.

To be a more effective communicator, you must sharpen up the output of your “transmitter” while making a genuine effort to learn something about the “receivers” with whom you are attempting to communicate.

To be sure, effective communications can be an elusive target. Still, those who make a sincere effort to improve their skill in expressing themselves and their ability to understand others will gain an important advantage on the path to business success.

Related Articles

You Need to Compete for the Best Job Candidates

How To Avoid 11 Common Negotiating Mistakes That Can Cost You Big Time

Are You a Great (Or Even a Good) Boss?

You must login or register in order to post a comment.