The distance between noise and purpose in communication can be measured in the gap between confusion and persuasion. Effective communication boils down to sharing the simple truth.
Simplicity is easy when the subject is simple. However, complex subjects tempt speakers into explosions of details that bewilder rather than inform listeners. Complex subjects are exactly the ones that demand simplicity.
The art of simplicity is elegance of expression, not patronizing people’s intelligence. Elegant expression requires discipline to focus on the essential, not the extraneous. Simplicity is not insulting; it is imperative to help people understand what you mean to say. For many exasperated audiences and reporters, a concise, well-framed argument is a welcome relief.
In earlier times, people would sit for hours listening to lectures, speeches and debates. But in our times, with television, the internet and social media, attention spans are much shorter. Getting to the point quickly and clearly are critical to gaining and retaining people’s attention. In earlier times, a great speaker was entertainment. In our times, longwinded, meandering discourse is tuned out as noise.
Making something complex seem simple takes skill and knowledge. You have to master your subject thoroughly so you can explain it simply. You need to know what is essential and what is just interesting. Giving your audience or interviewer the essence of your subject is elemental to getting your point across to an audience or your key message quoted in a story.
Admittedly, simple expression can be a conduit for slick-talking conmen, which is why it is important to simplify what you say without leaving out essential details that vouch for your credibility and validate what you say. Propaganda also can be alluringly simple, so your simplicity should take into account healthy skepticism. Make the proof of what you say simple to grasp, too.
Simplicity in communication becomes an art form when speakers paint word pictures, draw on familiar themes or create musical cadences in their sentences. Instead of providing unpacking instructions, effective speakers show what the finished product looks like when fully assembled. Don’t forget, pictures, videos and easy-to-understand charts can transport your audience to your point, too.
Speaking simply is situational. If you are giving an interview with a television reporter, you need to winnow down your key message to less than a sentence so it can fit in a 12-second on-air quote. If you are speaking to an audience consisting of experts on the topic, you can introduce more complexity while still keeping your expression economical. All audiences appreciate the favor of simple truth.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.