You’ve got something to say. But how do you say it so that people will listen? How do you preemptively head off pointless arguments? Keep people reading until the end? How can you be sure you’ll get your meaning across every single time?
The art of communication is one that you’ll spend your whole life perfecting. Language is constantly changing, culture is constantly changing, people are constantly changing. There’s no one right way to communicate because there are always multiple factors at play. But there are tips and tricks to make communicating easier in any given situation. Here’s one of them.
Channel your inner Twitter mob. Seriously. If you want to make a point or a comment—whether through speaking or writing, in formal or informal situations—and you want it to be as effective as humanly possible, pretend that you’re lobbing that comment directly into the middle of an angry, irrational Twitter mob. What could they possibly hate about it? How do you keep them completely engaged?
Keep it short.
The more words you use, the higher the chance that someone’s eyes will glaze over as you’re making your point and the higher the chance that some important caveat of what you’re saying will be missed. Whether you’re speaking or writing, the more you have to say, the less people will be engaged. We as humans have short attention spans and self-centered ideologies, and, while the actual limit varies person to person and situation to situation, at some point we all just don’t care anymore. If you have something important to say, you want people to care.
To this end, put your most important points first. If those points require background to be understood, keep it brief. Just because you know it, doesn’t mean other people have to. What’s the barest amount of information necessary to make your point? Will not including a certain piece of information really matter in the long run?
But also keep it comprehensive.
Find the balance between brevity and necessity. Don’t sacrifice meaning for word count if an extra sentence or two is going to be the difference between a full thought and a dangerous misunderstanding. Anticipate any common arguments against what you’re saying, and briefly address them without calling anyone out.
You want it to be clear that you know what you’re talking about and you can be trusted. Often the simplest way to achieve this is to keep whatever you’re saying as short and irrefutable as possible.
Be perfectly, absolutely clear.
If there is any possible way for people to misunderstand your words, people will misunderstand your words. And they will probably get defensive and angry about it. Whatever you’re going to say, make sure that it is as clear as it can possibly be. And then make it clearer.
Look for words or phrases with more than one meaning and ensure that the way you’re using them is obvious to anyone. Look for ambiguous sentence structures and reword them until there is only one possible way to understand them. Look for confusing jargon, obscure synonyms, and specific cultural references or slang. Consider your audience. Would they know or be able to easily look up what all of it means?
Having a trusted second person look over whatever you’re planning to say is always helpful, especially if you’re working on something important like a professional email or presentation. Do they have any questions? Arguments? Concerns? Take their advice into consideration, but don’t take it blindly. At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to take responsibility for your words.1
Don’t say it unless you’re absolutely sure of it.
If you don’t stand behind what you’re saying, you shouldn’t be saying it. If you’re unsure of the argument you’re making, you shouldn’t be making it. If you haven’t fact-checked something you’re sharing, you shouldn’t be sharing it.
And, this should go without saying, but people are people: Make sure you’re telling the truth.
Never be afraid to share your opinion. Just make sure your opinion is what you actually believe and is based in some kind of reasoning that you find rational. Never be afraid to speak up. Just make sure what you’re saying is a worthwhile addition to the conversation. Communication, especially communication on hard topics or in tense situations, is tricky. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Just stop for a moment before you add your voice to the cacophony and get in touch with your inner Twitter mob. If you’re sure of what you’re saying and they can’t find anything wrong with it, you’re probably okay.
(Probably. People are weird, after all.)
1Obviously if you’re in a situation where your work reflects on someone else, like a boss or organization, you have to take their feedback whether you agree with it or not.