“Never use two words when one will do best.”
– Harry Truman
President Harry Truman and his Key West, Florida neighbor Ernest Hemingway clearly understood every word counts. Both were masters of minimalist writing; they chose their words carefully, to tell a compelling story.
Our workplaces would benefit from adapting their style. Imagine receiving emails, listening to presentations, and reading documents that were concise and on point. Unfortunately, many of our work messages produce two words when one will do best.
Ineffective communication causes us to lose focus and be overwhelmed. The result is we act on the urgent and miss the important.
The leaders I coach often get frustrated when they receive complex responses to simple questions. They shake their heads and wonder:
- What is the point?
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- You described the problem, where is the solution?
Their questions are fair. However, leaders also contribute to the problem. Before we deflect blame to others, to say “if only they were more effective communicators”, we need to reflect on what we asked for. Were our expectations clear and concise?
We become better writers through our education process, yet the written word is often a secondary development priority in our careers. Public speaking skills, not writing, is where we receive greater feedback and development. My coaching clients are told they need to be more compelling speakers. Their eye contact and hand gestures need a boost. They need to quit reading the Power Point slides.
But while leaders need to be good on their feet, they also need to be good on their seat. They need to have the ability to sit down and effectively write.
The focus on public speaking hits close to home. Early in my career I admired great orators, and believed public speaking was the primary driver of professional success. I committed to overcome my fear of public speaking, joined Toastmasters, and slowly began to speak intelligently in front of a group of people. The applause and recognition felt rewarding, and my personal brand evolved to become “he is good on his feet”.
Unfortunately, my need to effectively communicate in writing – which I needed to utilize everyday – was neglected. I needed to be good on my seat – in the writing chair producing words that mattered to individual readers. Realizing my content and delivery on paper were just as important as in front of a group, I became a more effective communicator.
Three keys for making every word count:
Active vs. Passive Voice
In his book Do I Make Myself Clear? Harold Evans encourages readers to reduce their word count and build attention through an active voice. A few examples:
- The project was not successful.
- The project failed.
An active message is easy to read and clarity promotes action.
Draft and Edit
Set a new expectation – reducing 50 percent of our message through editing. Outline your thoughts and review again before you send.
Here is an example:
- Effective leaders are great communicators and make every word count.
- Leaders make every word count.
Same message, fewer words.
Build a Bridge
Connect your message to previous content using a bridge sentence. This sentence briefly points back to what was previously said, to build understanding for what is coming next.
- Therefore, …
- This implies that …
Remind the reader what has been said to lead them forward.
Leaders need to be great communicators – both on their feet and their seat. Public speaking is important yet, but effective communication also comes through a keyboard – not just a microphone. Polish your written content and make every word count.
All My Best,