How straight talking can make your message more powerful
What do Barack Obama and Simon Cowell have in common? Throughout his election campaign, Barack Obama was praised for his straight talking. His perception as honest, trustworthy and intelligent was crucial in his success in becoming president.
Similarly, Simon Cowell is both revered and reviled for his no-nonsense feedback to musical wannabees. Their direct, confident approach and avoidance of rhetoric plays a big part in the confidence the public has in them.
Rhetoric is one of the ancient arts of discourse, focusing on the way information and opinions are put across. For many centuries it was considered a noble accomplishment. Unfortunately, nowadays it is frequently prefaced by ‘empty’ and is associated more with politicians and spin doctors than with compelling argument.
Although rhetorical flourishes can be useful in persuading someone to see things in a particular way, when they’re used on weak messages, the speaker can seem full of hot air and disingenuous. This example is from a software company advertising a seminar:
“… gathering leading minds in business intelligence and the analyst community for expert consensus on the answer. Industry experts will highlight how you can leverage business intelligence to provide visibility into business critical information.”
This advert uses words to try and dazzle the reader, rather than persuade them with a clear message. If you consider the message, all it actually promises is information about how to use information to get — information.
Technical or business jargon might make you look like you know what you’re talking about, but where does it leave a reader who doesn’t have a specialised understanding of the subject? Getting straight to the point in understandable plain English is generally the best strategy — if your product is good, talk about it simply and clearly and you’ll be on the right track.
Ockham’s Razor, named after a fourteenth-century Franciscan friar, is often quoted by Sherlock Holmes, and his modern-day counterpart Dr Gregory House. It states that all else being equal, the simplest solution to a problem is the best. It may be tempting to go into detail: “If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone” — but most audiences would prefer: “If you have any questions, please phone”.
Straight talking helps avoid the traps of empty rhetoric, alienating jargon and unnecessary complexity. And best of all, plain speaking is easy to achieve, just follow these simple rules:
- Use short sentences containing only one main idea
- Never use a long word when a short one will get your message across more powerfully
- Avoid jargon, clichés, acronyms and management buzzwords whenever possible
- Be active — say ‘we will do it’ rather than ‘it will be done’: active verbs bring a document to life and are a lot easier to understand
- Be definite — if at all possible, use ‘will’ not ‘can’
- Be brief — the more concise you are, your readers will appreciate it, and there will be more of them
Applying these rules to your presentations, case studies, press releases, newsletters, white papers and emails will help you to deliver your message more effectively to your audience. And if you want any help with straight talking, talk to HN straight away.