Why are consultants “paid to tell you what you already know?” Why are some otherwise intelligent people bad at expressing their ideas? Why do some websites have so little information on them?
The answer is clarity. The ability to convey a message or idea in a direct, clear, and precise manner, with nothing extra, is immensely valuable and underrated. In this post I explain why I think so, why it pays to seek clarity, and how to achieve it.
Why Clarity is Underrated
It’s easy to miss. Since clarity draws attention to the message, and not itself, we notice its absence but not its presence. When we receive a clear message, we don’t appreciate all the parts and alternatives that had to be removed.
Clarity is easy to dismiss. When presented with a clear idea, it’s tempting to think “I already knew that,” just as people think “I could have done that” upon seeing Malevich’s Black Square. Maybe you did know it, but could you have expressed it as clearly? And why didn’t you already?
Our mental images are less complete than we think. It’s easy to picture a bicycle in our minds, but attempting to draw one shows just how much we’re fooling ourselves. Combine this with hindsight bias (we overestimate what we knew in the past), and it’s easy to dismiss a clear expression as something we already knew or could have done.
The Value of Clarity
Delivering your message with clarity helps the audience hear, parse, understand, and remember it. That’s what matters in any professional communication, especially in management and marketing.
Clarity leads to action, because it presents an obvious next step or by eliminating choices. This makes procrastination less likely and speeds up future decisions.
It eliminates distractions, both for you and the audience, and brings all attention to the essential elements.
It’s scarce. Boiling an idea down to its essence requires both skill and a deep understanding of the subject. Not many people have both.
Clarity projects confidence and experience.
It saves time. It takes less time to say or write, and less time for the audience to process it. Writing lengthy emails, stretching presentations, or prolonging meetings diminishes clarity and wastes time.
Caveat: Not All that’s Clear is Valuable
The benefits of clarity make it an effective tool for bullshit artists. If in doubt, consider the source and how they arrived at their idea. Fortunately, a clear statement is easier to (in)validate, so untrue-but-clear is still better than untrue-and-vague.
How to Be More Clear
Understand the subject. There’s no shortcut to this. If you can’t convey an idea with clarity, you don’t understand it well enough. Richard Feynman said, “I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.”
Beyond that, use these tips to make yourself more clear:
Get it out of your head, as in the bicycle example. Write it down or say it to someone else—you’ll see where the gaps are and can fill them in for next time.
Use clear and concise language. Don’t say “it couldn’t be any simpler” when you can say “it’s easy,” or “unfortunately I’m not sure I can agree to this” when “I disagree” will do. See this handy guide (PDF).
Cut, cut, cut… Prune until you have nothing but the most essential. “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.” (Antoine de Saint Exupéry) Instead of asking “Does this part add anything?” ask “Would removing this part hurt anything?”
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