In the five seconds it took you to read that headline and decide whether or not to read the article, 3.5 million messages were exchanged via WhatsApp and Messenger, 7,300 people tweeted and 16 million emails were sent according to the 2019 World Economic Forum This is What Happens in a Minute on the Internet report. There’s a high chance that one of these messages, emails or tweets landed in one of the several tabs open on your computer screen. Add to this, the tons of work that needs to be completed.
In this day and age, when people have limited attention span and time, distilling your explanations to the essentials is the only way to ensure that your audience at the workplace consider the point you are trying to make. Get into the habit of first presenting the most critical point rather than the defense of why this point is critical.
I learned this the hard way. At the start of the year, I got the feedback that while explaining my points in meetings, I took a long-winded approach. I was surprised. I had always thought of myself as a fluent speaker. After introspection and lots of discussions, I realized that I was confusing my fluency in English and loyalty for logic, with effectiveness in communication. In presentations, I always wanted to explain the logic behind the ‘why’ of my argument rather than stating the main point. In doing this, I was often losing my listeners because they could not understand where “my big” reveal was headed.
Attention is a precious resource. Understanding someone’s logic takes time and mental energy—two things that reduce exponentially at the workplace as the day progresses. Hence you should reach your main point as early as possible—something that I learned from the former McKinsey & Company consultant Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle.
The Pyramid Principle states that you should state the most important thing first. What is it that you really want your listener to act on, think, or remember? Say it first. This is your governing thought—the ‘So What?’ of your explanation. Everything else builds up to this point. After hearing it, if your listeners are interested, they’ll ask you for more information. That’s when you bring in logic, details or the rest of the pyramid.
Thereafter, simplify your explanation. As Naval Ravikant, serial entrepreneur and CEO of AngelList tweeted in March 2017: “It’s the mark of a genius to explain a complex topic in a simple way”. Craft your explanation in a way that every listener from the ages of 8 to 80 can understand you. This isn’t about dumbing it down; it’s making sure you explain as simply as it can be done.
Now, while explaining things, I ensure not to bombard my audience with all the information I have. For that, I follow one of the 10 laws given by John Maeda, author of the seminal book on design, technology, business and life, The Laws of Simplicity. The law says: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful”.
This one comes with knowing your listeners well. Before speaking, I momentarily reflect on the things that are too obvious for them to be told. Then I simply eliminate them from my explanation. Where needed, they almost always ask me to pause and explain a point they didn’t understand.
Communicating well is a tough skill. I believe I’m improving. Slowly, but surely. Simply!
Nishant Singh is a graduate from NIT Uttarakhand and a Young India Fellow. A curriculum specialist at Harappa Education, in his free time, he trains for marathons, studies photographs and dreams of biryani.
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