Let’s be clear

This is a post about being clear. What does that mean, being clear? Does it mean the same thing to everyone? Probably not. This is the problem; when we use words, we have little control over how our intentions or ideas are interpreted by others.

I think there are some simple things we can do to be clearer. Things we can do so that people are less likely to misunderstand us. There are things we can do to reduce the noise and get to the point when communicating with other humans.

Here are a few areas of my life where simplicity and clarity is needed and some of the things I use to help.

Emails – Do I need to do anything with this?

If you’re like me, you’ll receive lots of emails. Every day, hundreds of them.  Outlook has become our masters; we work tirelessly through our backlog of emails, trying desperately to distinguish between those that need our action and those that are just intended to keep us in the loop.  Such emails often find their way into our inbox in an effort to be inclusive or to create a record, so we can be told at a later date that we knew about something that we claimed we didn’t. Long emails are time-consuming to read. When you send a long email you’re expecting the recipients to give up their valuable time to read your words and hopefully understand exactly what you mean and what they need to do. Emails are just words on a screen; they don’t have an expressive face or body language to provide the reader with hints on the tone of the message. Misplaced punctuation, bad syntax or the wrong order of words can easily turn a friendly email into an impolite rant!! (the double exclamation is a personal favourite)

How can we get clearer?

  • Helpful subjects: Take the time to use a subject that sums up the nature of the email. If you’re forwarding on an email, and the subject is ambiguous, don’t pass it on without editing the subject into something meaningful.
  • Action needed: Prefix the email subject with “Action required” or “Information only”
  • Summarise: Help the recipient with their email filtering by crafting a concise summary. How would you summarise the content as a tweet? Use TL:DR; at the start of an email.
  • Emotive Punctuation: Avoid using exclamation marks!
  • Use a better channel: Don’t send emails. Use face to face, video / chat, phone.

Metrics – What is this telling me?
How often have you looked at a graph or a number in a report, and you have no idea what it is telling you? When this happens, we either miss an opportunity to act on important information or worse still, we draw incorrect conclusions and make erroneous decisions. Do you know why you are sharing a metric? How will it be used? Sometimes we fall into the trap of sharing everything. We have some great tools, frameworks and methods these days,  all providing a wealth of data. It’s easy to get carried away and give everyone everything. If we’re not careful, the important stuff is buried amongst junk graphs and vanity metrics.

How can we get clearer?

  • Use meaningful labels: Instead of labelling your charts or metrics with ambiguous titles like “Velocity” or “Budget”, try labelling them with questions that the metric is aiming to answer. For example “How are we doing against our forecast?”, “How much money are we spending?”
  • Ask why: Don’t provide metrics to anyone that can’t tell you why they need them and how they will use them. Ask: “What action will you take based on this metric?” Often this will lead to understanding the real question that they want to answer, and perhaps a different metric to answer it. Try it.

Meetings – What’s this about then?
In between reading lengthy emails and deciphering obscure metrics, we can find ourselves spending our precious remaining time in meetings. How often are these meetings a good use of our time? You receive an invite to a 2-hour meeting. The invite simply says “2018/19 budget”. What do you expect the meeting will be about? What will you be expected to bring to the meeting? Why is the meeting happening? These are all questions that, without explanation, leave you to draw your own conclusions. You may read through the invite list, pour over the attached spreadsheet and using your expertise at meeting forensics, deduce the what’s and whys of the forthcoming meeting and you’ll prepare accordingly (and perhaps mistakenly).

How can we get clearer?

  • Questions: If you’re setting up a meeting, reframe the agenda around the questions that you hope to answer. If you’re attending a meeting, ask for these questions before agreeing to attend.
  • Give / Get: Start the meeting with a brief introduction from everyone, asking them to share what they will give to the meeting and what they hope to get. If anyone struggles to answer these questions, they shouldn’t be there.
  • Ask why: When you’re invited to a meeting, don’t be afraid to ask why you’re being invited. Ask what will happen if you don’t go. You never know, you may find you get some precious time back.

Conversation – what are you talking about?
Sometimes it’s difficult gaining a common understanding between a group of individuals. This is particularly challenging when the individuals are from different professions or disciplines.

  • Draw: You don’t have to be an artist to get an idea across on paper. Sketching some simple boxes, lines and squiggles can help bring clarity to a complex idea. This is my default tool – I instinctively reach for the dry wipe marker or pen and paper to explain what’s going on in my head. I usually find this helps me as well as the people I’m working with.
  • Draw more: Invite others to contribute to your sketch. I’ve seen some amazing things happen when people feel free to amend and co-create a sketch.
  • Analogies: I talk about this in a previous post. Analogies can be a useful tool in helping describe an idea. An analogy can be like the Rosetta Stone in a conversation.
  • Radical candour: I think this is something we “unlearn” as we become adults. As children, we can be pretty blunt. If we don’t like something, we say so. If we need something, we say so. We grow up, and we’re socially conditioned to be more reserved with our feedback under the guise of being “diplomatic”. While it’s important to be polite to one another, diplomacy can result in clouding the meaning in our words. We’re afraid of consequences, we skirt around issues and make a simple question or feedback an opaque string of words that are easily misinterpreted. Radical candour can be a useful tool to help gain clearer communication and constructive feedback in a team, but it requires that everyone in the team subscribe to it. Read more about radical candour here.

These are just a few ideas, please let me know if you’ve found other useful techniques to help bring clarity.

Let’s make everyone’s lives easier. Let’s be clear.

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