Have you ever read a report at work or listened to a club speech, and at the end, had no idea what the writer or speaker was saying? We all have. When communicators do not know how to express themselves clearly and succinctly, everyone suffers.
I love language and the power words have to persuade, request, inform, or entertain. In fact, I founded Worktalk Communications Consulting specifically to train people to become clear, confident writers. And of course, language skills extend to the spoken word as well. Before founding my business, I worked as a freelance writer, editor, and speechwriter. I saw people struggle to express themselves clearly, and I knew that you don’t have to be a “natural writer” or a “natural speaker” to write and speak successfully. Communication is a skill, and like all skills, it improves with practice. Moreover, applying a few basic principles can transform your writing, and thus your speeches.
Here are 10 tips to help you wield words for results.
1 Eliminate the obvious.
While it pays to touch on ideas your listeners are familiar with, stating something they already know will make them tune out. Eliminate the phrases that will make audience members say, “I know that!” For example, if you are speaking to a group of finance experts, you would not explain what a debit is.
2 Make one point.
The title of my book Get to the Point! says it all: Proficient writing makes one central point. When you try to make multiple points, you may end up delivering none. Supporting points are fine, but they must aim toward your goal. Remember, audience members should be able to summarize what you said in one sentence. Your listeners will not be able to sum up your message succinctly unless you deliver it clearly. And you cannot deliver your message clearly until you crystallize it for yourself. That is why I encourage the people I train to know their primary point before they start to write. Ask yourself, “If listeners could remember only one thing from my speech, what do I want that one thing to be?”
3 Take your readers on a journey.
Good writing tells stories. Listeners or readers want you to take them from here to there. For example, this article takes you from wondering how to write well to understanding valuable tools that support your writing success. Take your readers on a journey from inaction to action, from confusion to clarity, from wherever they are to the place you want them to be.
4 Be choosy with your stories.
Have you ever remembered a brilliant TV advertisement but couldn’t say what product was advertised? That’s a case of telling the wrong story. The advertiser caught your attention but failed in the ultimate goal: to impress the product’s name on your memory. Similarly, when you choose a juicy but irrelevant story, you waste precious attention on words that won’t carry you to your destination. Instead, have a reason for including every story in your writing or speech. Stories are your most powerful tools; use them wisely.
5 Choose vigorous language.
Using active verbs rather than passive ones will make your writing more vibrant. (An active sentence would be, “The speaker presented her ideas.” The passive form would be, “Ideas were presented by the speaker.”) When you have a choice between a word that ends with -ation, such as consideration, choose the verb that hides within the long term, in this case consider. Avoid long, flowery, convoluted sentences. Your listeners will yawn. For example, let’s look at this sentence: We are pleased to inform you that your application has been received and that it is being taken under consideration. This sentence takes 20 words to deliver this message: We have received your application and are reviewing it.
6 Cut! Cut! Cut!
In writing, and in speaking, less is more. You may have a wordy rough draft—that’s normal. Just be sure to follow the writing advice of British author and literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch to “murder your darlings.” If you think a phrase is just too brilliant, you should probably delete it. Deleting your favorite phrases is tough, but attention spans are shrinking all the time. Edit yourself ruthlessly and your readers and listeners will reward you with their attention.
7 Put your draft aside before you present it.
We’ve all had the experience of writing a speech in a day and congratulating ourselves on how brilliant we are. Then we look at it the next day and are amazed that we had been so mistaken. You can improve everything you write if you let it rest for a day or two and return to it with fresh eyes. You will also benefit from having “a second set of eyes.” Ask a trusted friend or colleague to give you feedback before finalizing your draft.
8 Speak authentically.
As the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde wrote, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” No one can be you, and you cannot be anyone else. You may learn from other peoples’ styles but never mimic them. If your favorite speaker is crisp and concise, model your speech after their approach, but don’t try to fill their shoes. Otherwise, you might sound phony or affected. You can ask friends or fellow club members for their opinions, but your writing or speaking has to sound like you.
9 Keep it simple.
“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler,” said the world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein. Your readers and listeners are distracted and overwhelmed. If what you write or say is difficult to understand, they will tune you out in a nanosecond. Instead, hook their attention with a fact or question about their interests and make your point simply, but not simplistically. Simplicity is elegance. Being simplistic is condescension.
10 Have something to say.
Blogger Jeff Hadeen wrote, “Without something to say, no one is a good writer.” Ideas may need to marinate for a while before they’re ready for expression. Don’t rush. Wait until you have something to say.
Then, once you know your point, you can return to point number one and start writing.
Elizabeth Danziger is founder of Worktalk Communications Consulting, a Los Angeles, California-based company that teaches effective writing. She is the author of four books, including Get to the Point! 2nd edition. For more information and to sign up for Writamins monthly writing tips, visit www.worktalk.com.