Clarity in Communications

By Guy Higgins

I came across a post from the Harvard Business Review titled Step Away from the Thesaurus: Big Words Don’t Make You Look Smart. I thought it was a pretty good post.

The most important factor in communicating is clarity. You want your intended meaning to be clear to the audience at which your communication is aimed. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? My experience is that even professional writers don’t always hit that mark.

Examples of word choice (which I hope are illuminating, or is it enlightening?):

  • William F. Buckley was famous for his vast vocabulary. When asked, during an interview, why he didn’t use shorter, more common words, Buckley is alleged to have replied, “I am writing for a very specific audience, and I choose words that have a precise meaning for that audience, and that meaning is precisely what I intend to communicate.” Mr. Buckley was not writing for Marvel Comics and he knew his audience (a reasonably large number of them, personally). He was confident that they would understand his intended meaning. He was, therefore, achieving clarity.
  • Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time using about 2,500 commonly used words. If there is an arcane subject in the world, it’s the intersection of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and time. Yet, Dr. Hawking performed the remarkable feat of presenting a clear and understandable explication of the state of physics today. His audience was educated non-physicists and he chose a vocabulary he knew that audience would understand (regardless of the area of their education) and took pains to make his book understandable. He, too, achieved clarity.
  • Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently published the third book of his (self-proclaimed) trilogy, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. While he makes some interesting points, he is also completely unapologetic for his writing style (semi-stream of consciousness – my words, not his) and choice of vocabulary (eclectic and not always informative – my judgment). Mr. Taleb has written three books, notionally for the general business audience, but has tailored neither his style nor his vocabulary to make his books either readable or easily understood (occasionally, I wonder whether or not the people who write those glowing endorsements on the back of the dust jackets have actually read the book about which they wax so eloquent). My assessment is that he has not achieved clarity of communication with his intended audience (at least he certainly didn’t with me).
  • Karen Armstrong is a philosopher/theologian who has written a number of books about religion. Her books seem to be aimed at a general, educated audience, but she has not taken the trouble to eliminate the “technical jargon” of philosophy and theology that that Dr. Hawking took to eliminate the physics equivalent from his book. Her books are interesting and informative – if you keep a “cheat sheet” at hand so that you can go back and recall what the dickens “apophatic” means.

I think that actually communicating is about understanding your target audience and tailoring your vocabulary to achieve clarity – working to ensure that the meaning your audience takes away is the meaning you intended to impart. Otherwise, you may simply be guilty of displaying a marked propensity for the employment of polysyllabic terminology.


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