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The What, Why, and How of Clear Communication

July 20, 2011

 

1.      What is Clarity?

The problem with communication, according to Nobel laureate George B. Shaw, is the illusion that it has been accomplished. Indeed communication often fails because of a lack of clarity. Clarity or the state of being clear, lucid and distinct is the pre-requisite for effective communication.  Clear communication is the act of conveying messages so that audiences are likely to understand their relevance and meaning. Clear communication reduces the probability of misunderstandings by ensuring an adequate message scope, style, and format.  Definitions of clarity go all the way back to such eminent thinkers as Descartes, Leibniz, Peirce, or more recently Bateson. They emphasize that to be clear you need to organize your messages in a disciplined manner and show their implications. To be clear, in a nutshell, means to be brief, systematic and relevant. In corporate life, however, this is easier said than done - hence our study.

2. Why care about Clear Communication?

In January of this year, the Global Alliance joined forces with the University of St.Gallen's =mcm institute to study how corporate communicators can manage the clarity of their messages. There are four major reasons why the Global Alliance together with Axa Insurance, Swisscom, Grayling and the University of St. Gallen has launched a major study on clear communication and why you should care about this topic:

First, corporate communicators lament that the complexity of the messages that they need to convey is increasing and makes their communication efforts ever more challenging. They need to explain issues like genetically modified food or labor disputes to the general public, inform activists about their CSR activities, or convey the essence of their R&D strategy to investors and analysts. These are all complex issues that are not easy to clarify - especially when there are many internal sources and contact points who would like to contribute to these messages.

The second reason relates to the target groups of such messages:  their attention span has generally become shorter, while their expectations regarding crisp and clear communication have risen. We live in an attention economy where the Youtube generation expects to get the essence of a message in thirty seconds (as for example in a Twitter message). This means that complex issues need to be communicated quickly and in concise and consistent messages across different channels and formats.

There is a third reason for caring for clarity, namely the fact that PR professionals are sometimes accused of deliberately obfuscating issues and not striving for clear communication. We believe that this is wrong and that the PR community embraces clarity in its communication efforts. This fact, however, needs to be highlighted through corresponding case studies and surveys (like the one at http://www.clear-communication.org/). This will ultimately lead to an improved reputation for the entire industry.

A fourth reason to conduct a study on how to be clear lies in the fact that there is a great body of literature on the topic that corporate communicators may ignore. There is extensive research available on what makes complex issues more understandable, but it is - ironically - not documented in a clear and actionable manner that busy communicators can understand and apply. Our study aims to translate these findings into actionable advice.  You can find one example of this below.

3.      How to Communicate Clearly:  A Checklist for Corporate Communicators

To communicate clearly, communicators need to pay attention to five factors, summarized in our CLEAR acronym: A clear communication has an explicit Context (purpose, audience, scope). It has a Logical structure and focuses on Essential elements. These elements consist of Ambiguity-free terms. They contain examples and illustrations that Resonate with the audience.

C FOR CONTEXT

Provide an upfront positioning, don't jump in.

The first element of communicating clearly is to briefly explain the context of your message: Why has it been written (purpose), when (date), for whom (target group) and - if needed - what has come before it (background).

L FOR LOGICAL STRUCTURE

Give the message a logical structure, don't just ramble on.

Any kind of complex communication has to be made digestible by giving it an easily accessible, systematic and explicit structure. Use templates to ensure a consistent, logical and simple structure.

E FOR ESSENTIAL

Cut out unnecessary elements, don't deviate from the main message.

Especially in written communication we know better what we really want to say when we have already written it up. Thus, rewriting and cutting out unessential parts is an important step to making your communication clearer.

A  FOR AMBIGUITY-FREE

Choose specific, clearly defined and familiar words, avoid vague terms.

Whenever possible try to use simple terms that you know all receivers will understand in the same way. If that is not possible, provide concise definitions.

R FOR RESONANCE

Provide stimulating elements that resonate with the audience, don't make your message dull.

Your messages are better understood if people are motivated to read or watch them. To get your audiences to pay close attention to your communication, address them directly and personally, offer illustrative examples and stories early on, and work with fitting analogies or metaphors.

Next to such tools, metrics, checklists and the survey, our study also features clarity champions, that is to say communicators who have done an outstanding job of making the complex clear. If you would like to be featured in the study, contact the authors at martin.eppler@unisg.ch.

About the MCM Institute at USG

The MCM Institute at the University of St Gallen is an internationally recognised research, qualification and consulting centre for media and communications management as well as for culture and media. We help students, researchers and decision makers in business and society meet the challenges of the digital age.

Contact:

Institute for Media and Communications Management
University of St.Gallen
Blumenbergplatz 9
CH-9000 St.Gallen

Phone: +41 (0)71 224 22 97
E-Mail: info.mcm@unisg.ch
Fax: +41 (0)71 224 27 71