As I’m writing this I’m remembering being a lame high school student, standing at the edge of a circle of friends-by-inheritance and chiming in once every two days. Guess how I felt when the pretty girls would walk by and their eyes wouldn’t slide over me–they didn’t even look in my direction.
I’m also looking at a picture of a beautiful girl who chased me down at a party months ago and made me stay up late and tell her stories until the sun popped up over the windowsill.
That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t changed something. Something big. Clarity isn’t the whole picture–you can get a bit more on speaking skills in general here and even more by subscribing to my newsletter–but this is a start.
Hey! Take a look at The Conversation Handbook if you’ve got a chance! This blog post is still excellent, but if you’re looking for more, that book is 150 pages long and is quite a bit more polished than this article. Good luck!
I realize that you might expect advice on speaking clearly to be about whether or not you’re spending more time chewing on your tongue than sending coherent words out into the world. That one problem has a very simple solution: speak slower and choose every word. This also makes you appear more confident (confident people have slower dialogues). But it’s not what I think will give you the most bang for your buck.
Here’s what I’d like to cover:
- Be Direct and Responsible with your Meaning
- Speak Loudly. Call Attention To Yourself.
- Avoid Slang, Jargon and Pop-Culture References
- Some Exercises to Improve Clarity
William Zinsser is the author of the writer’s bible, On Writing Well. The biggest flaw that most writers have, he writes, is a lack of clarity. This is also true of speakers.
You might lisp or mumble or speak too quietly. But you might also be confusing your audience with slang, jargon or vague pop-culture references.
Besides the obvious benefits, people who speak clearly also come across as more confident and significantly more persuasive. When everyone is talking around an issue, the clearest, most blunt speaker will gain the most attention. That attention is your super power: now you give your solution, just as clearly and persuasively, and who’s going to argue with you? Someone who has vague answers? Everyone is listening to you.
All of those details follow as well as some exercises that you can use to improve the clarity of your speech.
Be Direct and Responsible with your Meaning
I want to start by sharing an email I got from a former landlady. Reading it, I’d like you to try to understand what she’s talking about. I removed some information above and below that doesn’t clarify the message.
I did however want to run by you whether you are comfortable here or not. I do not want to infringe on your privacy, but as you know this is a family home and there are certain things that need to be respected. I am not sure if you can or are willing to do so for the next 6 months. If you are, then all is well and we can continue with our arrangement. However, if you cannot deal/are not comfortable with the limits in place – then now would be a good time to let me know, so that we don’t move forward with another 6 months.
You have been a great tenant and everything has been fine thus far – we must simply make sure that we are on the same page before moving forward.
She meant, “You have to stop having loud sex or I’m kicking you out.” Did you understand that from the email? I did, because she had banged on the floor the night before I got it and I got two text messages from her, each about volume.
We both knew what she was talking about, and yet she didn’t outright say it.
This is a great example of someone being afraid of speaking clearly. Her argument for being unclear is simple: she’s worried that her meaning will offend me. She doesn’t want to take responsibility for it, so she purposefully makes it vague. But, at the end of the day, we’re talking about sex and eviction.
She uses two different tactics to deal with her fear of clearly communicating her message:
- She makes me responsible rather than herself
- She addresses the issue indirectly
Instead of taking ownership of her discomfort, she writes, “You need to come to me and tell me that you’re uncomfortable with the new rules.” Notice that now I’m responsible. I have to go to her.
I don’t often see people writing or speaking like that. Most writers duck responsibility by using the passive voice.
With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it’s the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
The active voice is when someone does something. An example is, “I ate the hotdog.” The passive voice is when something was done. So, “The hotdog was eaten.”
Notice how, even though I’ve still eaten the hotdog, I’m not in the story anymore? If I wanted to tell someone that I had eaten their hotdog but I didn’t want to take responsibility for it, I might use the passive voice. “Sorry buddy, your hotdog was eaten.”
There’s a museum in Germany with a plaque that reads, “Russia was invaded.” My ex-girlfriend use to say, “It wasn’t appreciated.”
You’re just afraid of the responsibility. Guess how confident you look peeing your pants over word choice.
Clear speech is direct and takes responsibility of its meaning.
Understand this: your meaning is going to be the same whether you obscure it or not. The only thing obscuring your speech does is make you harder to understand and make you look scared. Be direct.
And more importantly, be responsible. Don’t say, “It wasn’t appreciated.” Say, “I don’t appreciate that.” Even better, don’t say, “we’re not sure what to do.” Say, “I’m not sure what to do.”
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.
Who can understand the clotted language of everyday American commerce: the memo, the corporation report, the business letter, the notice from the bank explaining its latest “simplified” statement? … Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important.
William Zinsser, On Writing Well
The best way to master this form of clarity is to practice writing. I practiced in my text messages, rewriting each message 4-5 times for directness and responsibility. It’s just as useful to practice writing and rewriting emails. If you’re feeling creative, try dialogue.
If I was writing my landlady’s email to me to be direct and to take responsibility for what she intends to say, I would write this:
I get that you’re a bachelor, and that sex and relationships are going to be part of your life. But I’m not comfortable with rocking and banging and girls screaming in the basement. I don’t want my daughter hearing it either. If you’re not OK giving up sex here, I’ll give you some notice to move out.
I think you’re a great tenant and I don’t blame you for wanting to have sex, the problem is on my end and I’m sure you understand why.
Speak Loudly. Call Attention To Yourself.
My dad used to tell me that I mumbled. I’d deny it and sit, fuming, in the car. But he was right, and I continued to be quiet up until I realized how little being quiet served me.
It took a long time, but after I found out that speaking loudly, among other verbal cues, was a sign of confidence, I started to pursue it.
Being loud encroaches on other people’s mental space. It’s the equivalent of standing in someone’s way and forcing them to walk around you. Suddenly it makes sense that the volume at which you talk is related to your confidence.
Watch the video below and tell me what role volume plays in your impression of Eric, the speaker.
Here’s what I learned from listening to Eric’s volume. It gives him:
- Presence: When he’s loud, it’s HIS turn to speak. Everyone pays attention. Even if someone disagreed they’d be too nervous to speak over him.
- Trust: If he had been speaking quietly I wouldn’t have believed his story, and I wouldn’t have felt motivated. Why? Because if he wasn’t confident in his words he wouldn’t speak them so loudly.
- Passion: He’s given this presentation a thousand times, and yet he seems to passionate about it. You can show passion with faster and louder speech–don’t try this at home, it’s a side-effect of learning to speak loudly rather than something you should try to fake.
Avoid Slang, Jargon and Pop-Culture References
Note: These aren’t always bad. The problem is that they’re usually over-used.
I learned French growing up but seldom speak it. To keep it up I read French novels, and my favourites are classics like Les Trois Mousquetaires. Alexandre Dumas, the author, was writing in the 1800s and has a very romantic and descriptive language. Think Shakespeare but with much cooler plots as he wasn’t limited by what you could do on a stage.
The unfortunate side-effect of my education coming from Dumas is that now my French is flowery.
Leaving a French friend behind as I moved from one city to another, she texted me, “Tu vas me manquer” [I’ll miss you, or you’ll be missed by me]. I responded, “Il n’y a que les montagnes qui ne se rencontrent pas” [Only mountains never meet].
That sounded completely normal to me, but to her it was like I had quoted the bible–over-emphatic and unclear.
My romantic expression, which may strike you as romantic, actually confused her a little bit and therefore didn’t accomplish what I had wanted it to. A clearer way to express that sentiment might have been, “I’ll miss you too, beautiful girl, but I WILL see you when I come back.”
Now, here’s the thing. I know a half dozen girls who’d have both understood and loved that. I dated a girl for a year after she saw that I quoted a poet in describing her: “Comparing other girls to her is like holding a candle to the sun.” Pop Culture references, like, when someone makes a social mistake, denying them soup, can be funny. Slang and jargon can be very expressive.
But a lot of people mistake flowery words with strong meaning, romantic words with romance, slang and jargon with coolness, and formal words as becoming of a business person. They don’t cater it to their audience, they just use it and expect it to work.
Take note of any time people give you vague looks, don’t laugh when you expect them to, or even end a conversation after you’ve been unclear. I doubt it never happens to you.
You’ll get the same result from making any of these mistakes–lack of understanding. You’ll get a ton of different reactions though:
- Feigned understanding and a fake-sounding laugh or fake-looking nod
- A confused look and a verbal pause
- An affirmative (nod, “Yeah,” etc.) and then they’ll continue speaking while ignoring your comment
- “What?” “Not sure what you mean…”
These are kind of hard to detect since most people won’t call you out on it.
If you want to see this reaction, just insert this line into any conversation you’re having:
“Death from a thousand cuts.”
And then pause.
Looking for these confused reactions will teach you when you’re going overboard with your jargon, slang or obscure references. If you feel this is a big problem for you, catch yourself every time you make one and express the idea differently.
A note on this horse before we leave off kicking it: there’s a word, cliché, that means “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.” Tired metaphors and similes make you sound as if you lack original thought. If you can’t come up with your own or add some creativity into the old ones then don’t use them.
Some Exercises to Improve Clarity
Here are three exercises that you can use to improve your clarity of speech.
Third Time’s the Charm
I’ll give you a topic and the moment you see it you’re going to speak for about 20 seconds. I don’t care what you say. Once you’ve finished, you’re going to think about what you just said, and express it more clearly. Then, you’re going to do it one more time with the same subject. The third time’s the charm.
Your goal is to go from being incoherent to having a focused path.
Every time you repeat this exercise, focus on a different part of speaking clearly:
- Directness and Responsibility
- Jargon, Slang and Pop-Culture References
Remember to start this challenge right away.
Your topic is: Dogs
The Motivational Battle Speech
A general giving a speech to his troops before battle, at least in the movies, is usually very evocative. He’s pissed off, or deadly serious. Or both.
Try to emulate some of these speeches.
Try this one from 300. It’s short and sweet, so you shouldn’t have much trouble. There’s a lot of good stuff in Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Bastards too!
This one’s probably the toughest exercise for speaking clearly. Choose a rap and get every bit of it down.
Start with the first verse (usually 6-8 lines).
Make sure you’re not whispering it to yourself–rap it louder than you’re used to speaking. If you’re not used to singing, this is one of the most embarrassing things you’ll do until you’re good at it, and you’re more likely to be quiet when you’re embarrassed. Fight that urge.
Also make sure that you’re enunciating every syllable. Every word should be clear.
If you’re having trouble with one song, it might be too fast. Try something else. When you get one, try to memorize it and rap it from memory. Impress your friends!
Remember to check out the full article on how to improve speaking skills, and see you next week!