The ability to clearly formulate and express ideas is essential for anyone leading large-scale implementation efforts. As an implementer, I have received positive feedback about the clarity of my thinking and communications for years. However, until very recently, I haven't given much thought to what I actually do to achieve clarity. This became obvious a few months ago, when a colleague asked me for recommendations to help her in this area. My response to her straightforward question was a jumbled mess. So much so, that she mercifully let me off the hook and changed the subject. I was no use to her in that moment, but her question did inspire me to figure it out.
Through reflection on my own practices and research on the topic of clarity in thought, speech and writing, I identified five common practices and one overarching truth about achieving clarity. Best to get the truth on the table right now: Clarity takes effort. Clarity takes discipline. Clarity takes time. There’s no way around it.
If you accept this truth, then the five practices outlined below should help you. I can’t say they are a recipe for clarity, but they are certainly key ingredients.
1. Think first. Read second. Write third. This is the most efficient and productive order. Resist the desire to act first. Just think. (Depending on your preferences, thinking can take various forms. I am a big fan of mind mapping on a whiteboard, for instance. Others do their best thinking while talking.) Use this time to define your purpose and your audience. Figure out what you know and what you don’t know. Then research to fill in gaps. Then start to (formally) write or develop your end product. Keep in mind, this is unlikely to be a truly linear process. You will iterate and cycle back. However, your general trajectory should move from thinking, to finding things out, to summarizing in a form that's digestible to others.
2. Refine. Refine again. And again. The main point is that great first drafts do not exist — for anyone. Not only will you have to edit and sharpen and refine, but you probably will have to do it multiple times. This is not a sign of failure or lack of skill. It’s a sign that you care. Through this process you are testing, reworking and culling out anything that doesn’t directly serve your purpose. This will not only make things clearer for your audience, it will also make them clearer for you!
Beyond ‘just do it’, which is key, you may want to try a few other things. First, refine your work using the same method in which you will deliver it, e.g., if you are giving a presentation verbally, be sure your refining efforts include practicing it out loud. It makes a big difference. Two, remember to refine with an eye on both the forest AND the trees. I find I focus my editing as much on the structure and organization of what I am creating, as I do on specific wording. Both are important.
3. Focus on context and structure more than length. Put more of your effort into thoughtfully organizing and introducing your ideas, than in trying to limit them to a defined number or page length. Human beings have the capacity to digest large amounts of information, when the individual bits are related in some way. Rules that suggest we can only handle 5 - 9 ideas, or X number of bullet points on a slide, would be really handy if only they were true! Unfortunately, they reflect a misreading of research findings.
I have found this practice to hold true especially when working with executives who "refuse" to read anything longer than a single page. Of course, their interest isn't really page length. It's the clear and efficient presentation of relevant ideas. Page length doesn’t create that, you do. (You can find practical, summary guidance on structuring and presenting information here.)
4. Start with the punchline. When I worked in the office of the CEO at an NGO, this was the most common coaching point I gave to staff about their communications, particularly those aimed at executives. Start with your conclusion, then outline the key points that support it. Why? Because you know where you are headed, but no one else does, so why keep them guessing? I understand you probably weren’t taught to write this way in school. I also understand this takes confidence. In the end, a large part of being clear is being confident…which you are more likely to be if you spend the time to clarify your ideas! (To see this practice in action read a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO staff are taught to write in a specific style aimed at improving the legibility of their reports for their main audience, the U.S. Congress.)
5. Think, write and speak as yourself. It’s the shortest distance between you and clarity. You may adjust your tone based on your audience or type of communication. But your overall style should be your own. I've found when I try to impress by impersonating someone else, I generally have the opposite effect.
Because we are discussing clarity, a few additional things are worth addressing explicitly. Clear ideas are not necessarily correct. You can be really clear and really wrong. You can also be really clear, and a little wrong. Clarity and perfection should not be confused. (I’d argue that between the two, only the former is truly desirable.) Second, clarity is not always persuasive. While clear, correct and persuasive is the ideal combination, my focus in this post is clarity. Fortunately, when you do the hard work to clarify your ideas, you generally figure out if you are incorrect or unconvincing, but it’s not guaranteed.
If you are a bottom-line type person, these ideas and a willingness to practice may be all you need. If you want a bit more, check-out the annotated list of resources below.
“Editor’s Comments: Reflections on the craft of clear writing.” Academy of Management Review 2012, Vol. 37, No. 4, 493–501. See here. The article is organized around common problems found in writing and recommended solutions to those problems, as reflected in a survey of the organization's board members, editors and reviewers. Although the focus is on writing in academic journals, the lessons are broadly applicable.
George A. Miller. "The Magical Number Seven, plus or minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information." Psychological Review 101.2 (1994): 343-52. See here. I've provided a quote from Miller below related to the general misinterpretation of the findings presented in this article. However, I suggest reading the full article, because it's an excellent representation of disciplined thinking. Miller goes to great pains NOT to jump to conclusions, even those that would be very convenient and tidy for him.
"But the point was that 7 was a limit for the discrimination of unidimensional stimuli (pitches, loudness, brightness, etc.) and also a limit for immediate recall, neither of which has anything to do with a person's capacity to comprehend printed text." George Miller, from correspondence with Mark Halpern
Martin Swift. “Clear Writing, Means Clear Thinking, Means….” HBR.org. See here. Swift was a professor at the General Motors Institute — now Kettering University — in Flint, Michigan. This article, which includes analysis of sample business communications as well as some rules of thumb, originally appeared in Harvard Business Review in 1973.
Robert C. Pozen. “Extreme Productivity.” HBR.org. See here. Focused mostly on personal productivity, this article outlines an idea that appeared in most of my reading on this topic: Think first. Not only does it generally lead to greater clarity, but it gets the job done faster. You can also read a version of this article in the New York Times. See here.
Barbara Minto. 1996. The Minto Pyramid Principle. London: Minto International. See here. This book outlines a detailed method for “logic in writing, thinking and problem solving.” The core idea is to structure your ideas in a pyramid, i.e., a single overarching idea, supported by groups of related ideas. Should you have access to the book — as I did for years before actually reading it (!) — it’s worth reviewing at least the first four chapters, which provide key ideas about structuring your writing and thinking. The later chapters delve more into the details of logic. My hesitation about this book is that it's pretty expensive; you may wish to make a trip to the library. See here.
William Zinsser. 2001. On Writing Well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction (6th ed.). New York: HarperCollins. You can access a pdf version of the book, here. Zinsser was a professor of business writing at Yale, and aimed for this book to complement The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. For that reason, it reads more like a conversation, than a list of rules. It has a fair amount of discussion about the character and attitudes of a good writer.
William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler. 2010. Universal Principles of Design. Massachusetts: Rockport. See here. This reference book provides simple explanations for 125 key principles related to design. It’s fun to look through for inspiration, particularly related to visual presentation of ideas. Also available in a pocket edition.
The International Business Communication Standards provide practical guidance on structuring and presenting information. The standards are informed by the work of a variety of leading thinkers in this area, including Barbara Minto and Edward Tufte and, as such, provide a nice summary of key ideas.