How To Communicate Clearly

Ed Zitron 8 min read

The pressure of writing two straight newsletters that have been fairly well received is trying to follow them up with something useful, versus going back to writing the same “man, is anyone else tired? This pandemic thing sure is taking a while,” blog that, well, people enjoy and empathize with, but I wonder about the utility.

One beacon of hope right now - and the first time I’ve really been able to establish a sense of time again - is that there will be enough vaccines by the end of May for the entire country. That is…so wonderful! I don’t really have a snarky or sarcastic response to it. With every person who chooses to get the vaccine, that’s one less person who’s likely to get the virus, spread the virus, and so on.

I also - somewhat optimistically - booked our accommodations for CES 2022, where we’ll be staying in The Venetian Penthouse, hosting reporters, clients and anyone else we like for free drinks and free tacos all week. It’s a yearly ritual that we somehow squeaked into 2020, and I’m not sure if it’ll happen for sure, if people are even tempted to Las Vegas next year for the show - it’s all up in the air, but we’ve got a fairly generous cancellation policy. I hope it does. It’ll be lovely to see you all.

How To Be The Best Communicator Around

Today, in one of the many media trainings I do for clients, I listened as a spokesperson who was still very good stumbled in an answer. He composed himself, then ended up saying something that he believed was a reduction - something that ended up being beautifully clear and simple, that answered my mock question perfectly.

I realized then that I need to start all media trainings by telling people to answer stuff bluntly and honestly (within reason) and that in many cases, the most straightforward answer is usually the best one.

The continual issue that I find with a great many people, especially PR people, is that we’re taught in college and many other walks of life to give the smartest answer rather than best one. We have, societally, been taught to try and avoid any indemnification, to not admit any wrongdoing, to avoid bearing too much of our soul or showing any emotion, and give the textbook answer that we believe is “correct" because it sounds good.

This is something I’ve ever seen from lawyers - the need to make these vast, wall-like responses that make for nice billable hours, but also obfuscate from any actual meeting of the minds. My lawyer, who is wonderful, communicates bluntly with them and says what happened, what we want, and how things will go otherwise. It saves people time.

The goal of a lot of this mediated communication is to position ourselves as what we aspire to be - smart, well-read, engaging, a force to be reckoned with - all while giving relatively long, mealy-mouthed responses because that’s what we were taught to. In my industry, this is usually because PR has a “hire the best GPA” problem, where the smartest kids, who are taught to do college really well, are hired and continually promoted, continuing the Intro-body-conclusion method of communication.

I want to help you be better.

Don’t Do Anything That Doesn’t Help

This is one statement that you’ll find yourself breaking as you get more comfortable communicating, but for the most part metaphors, similes, analogies and references are unhelpful to clear communication.

This takes on several forms, but generally any metaphors, idioms or similes you use should be able to take the reader somewhere that just saying what something is could. The same goes for references to stuff - TV shows, sports stars, and so on. The over-use of these things usually comes down to you trying to sound smart or win someone’s attention, and as you become more sophisticated, or speak to a very specific audience, they make more sense.

In 90% of occasions, they don’t. Telling someone to go Full Court Press on something if they don’t know basketball is bad, and it’s cliché even if they do. A Hail Mary can mean something very different to a religious person who isn’t into sports, but also takes the place of saying “we’re going to try something that is not likely to succeed.” And in any case, using these things too often detracts from your communication.

You also don’t need to use long words unless they do the job better than a short one. Saying something is laborious is useful over, say, time-consuming if you want to add the emotional weight of laboriousness to it, but otherwise it’s a little much. This may seem like I’m telling you to sound stupid, but in most cases you can be blunter, clearer and quicker. You’ll communicate more information to more people, and usually do so faster.

Finally: there is never a time when you try and be funny where you’re actually funny. Actual humorous writing does not come from a place of desperation and appeasement.

Write Like You Talk (And Talk Like You Write)

Something that dismays people that have only got to know me through Twitter is how alarmingly close to my tweets my actual voice is. The reason is because my old editor Will Porter once redlined a single page so much that it looked like I’d bled all over it, and told me bluntly - “write like you talk.”

What this means is that you should get away from trying to push vocabulary and forms of speech into your writing that you don’t actually follow. This will also help you write faster - because you’re not actively engaged in trying to make yourself sound intelligent, you’re going to be talking, just using your fingers and the keyboard.

This will also make you sound better when you talk with your mouth, because you’re now working basically the same muscle versus trying to have a narrative style and a spoken style. This is immensely helpful, and constantly helps you sound smarter because what you write is what you speak and what you speak is what you write.

This is a bizarre way to think about your communication, I realize, but it has been incredibly helpful for me as I mature as a writer and a person who has to do business for money. It makes both things a lot more fun, and is ultimately more honest, which is the root of great communication.

Learning From Others

I will never recommend copying other people’s speech patterns, but I do recommend, when you read or hear someone speaking that you find super engaging, trying to listen or read a little more intently to try and understand why.

In fact, the number one way to get better at writing and talking is to read and watch and listen to things.

Everyone has a particular cadence and flow to how they write when they really, really get into it. For example, my writing crush David J. Roth continually writes interesting prose by using a combination of fairly blunt writing laced with self-effacing comments and, more importantly, references that actually aid the story. It’s something that’s enjoyable to read because it ultimately communicates an emotional context - in this case, setting a scene of dorky quasi-shame that leads you into listening to his podcast.

Learn from what you enjoy, but do not mimic it. You are you, and you are not them, and trying to be them is going to feel forced.

Get To The Point

In basically anything you’re writing you have a goal and an audience, and despite what you may have been told that audience in many cases is there to be informed rather than entertained. Information can be communicated in a way that’s interesting and entertaining, but in many kinds of writing you’re doing for work, or if you’re speaking, you have a point to what you’re saying.

If you’re writing an email to get someone to do something, make the subject header informative (EG: “I want to get coffee with you/graduate learning about XYZ”) and the body direct. You want to meet for coffee - okay, what do you want to talk about? For how long? Will you go to them? What are some days that might work? What’s your cell? Why should they meet with you over someone else, and what’s in it for them?

Great writing oftentimes gets wrapped up in trying to be great writing. Focus on getting across the point that’s in your head. When I wrote about going to Super Bowl 50, I wanted to give people the feeling that they were there, and also lead them to how I got there myself - a story, but one that was informative. I described what I saw as bluntly as possible, took photos, and tried to avoid anything that would get in the way of the emotional or factual content of the day, and people loved it.

If something feels “short” because the way people do things usually is long, sit and think about whether you’ve said everything they need to hear.

Answer The Question

Whenever I’m coaching someone to do media interviews, I try and drill into their heads that a conversation isn’t a puzzle to solve. If someone asks you a question, they are in most cases looking for an answer. Sure, there are situations where they’re trying to trip you up - asking the same question in a different way - but most questions have an answer, so give it as clearly and concisely as possible.

This also means that you can say you don’t want to discuss something. Hey, what’s your revenue? We’re not disclosing that at this time. What does your agency do? We help clients get coverage with the media.

Most of the time you can give a fairly straightforward answer to a question. If it’s a big question - like what problem you’re solving - then that may take a little longer, but it’s totally fine to go down a list of problems you’re solving, and why they’re important to solve. Couch it with numbers - X million people deal with this in a $YBn industry.

And if you truly can’t answer something, or don’t know something, be honest. Say you don’t know. Say you can’t answer that at this time. If you can’t say why, say you can’t say why, but will tell them when you can.

Be Astute, Not Smart

The greatest speakers in any industry are usually the ones that put things well, and some of the greatest quotes in history are actually pretty simple. Most things that sound smart are actually astute - you are not being graded on your answer, you’re getting something out of it.

This all applies to spoken stuff too - public speaking, presentations, and the like - things are made endearing based on the narratives we create around them, and said narratives, while usually fueled by emotional context, are ultimately grounded in some sort of approachable reality. This doesn’t even necessarily mean hard truths or stats, but a context and understanding of the person you’re talking to.

Say you’re speaking to a group of people you want to raise money from - ultimately what you’re communicating is that their investment will be worth more thanks to giving it to you, which means compellingly explaining why your business is both stable enough to survive and thrive, but also new and innovative enough that there’s more money to be made. You can say things like innovative or revolutionary, but these are meaningless if you can’t show them how.

In The End…Actually Give A Shit

The reason a lot of marketing copy rings so hollow is that the person is writing marketing copy, and doesn’t really care. Brand tweets that attempt to emulate human emotion suffer because they are drained of any empathy by being from a brand - don’t pretend you’re my friend! You’re a brand!

This also applies to PR people, or anyone really trying to get you to do something. When someone comes to you and makes a compelling argument that is founded in actual thought and research, that actually flows through it. I sound sort of like a PR person writing PR copy now even writing this, and have had to delete several sentences for fear I’ll sound like the very falsehoods I’m trying to tell you not to say.

But really good writing that is actually readable and does something comes from a place of honesty and truth in your rotten little soul. It may not be the most important thing in the world, or the most emotionally-charged thing in the world, but it sounds like it’s coming from an actual person, which is what another person wants to read or hear from when they’re making a decision.

It is tough to talk and speak clearly, and be listened to, but it really just comes down to speaking the words that are already in your head.

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