Where would I breathe? Simple advice for creating clear communication

Sometimes the best advice is the simplest.

Lately, to highlight the importance of simple, clear communication, I’ve been posting “bad sentences”.  Bad sentences are those that are difficult to read or hard to process quickly. You probably run into them all the time online, in books, and in emails. They are even more common when people are speaking. Here are a few examples:

  • Yes, it’s true that out of this program the more mature SR-71 emerged, with simplified construction (now ADP had learned how to build a M3+ spy plane, at eye-watering cost), so that a single strong component was now cast, machined and installed, instead of using the former process and being assembled out of six to eight smaller components. (Source: Alston, John. The Black Line: Developing Mission-Planning Software for the SR-71)
  • The report seemed to indicate otherwise, recapping some of the past year’s highlights for the Chinese military including the deployment of surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles to its man-made islands in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea and warning of Beijing’s “continuing improvements” in missile technology to allow its military to operate “further from China.” (Source: https://www.foxnews.com/world/chinese-military-expanding-to-contest-us-military-superiority-pentagon-says)
  • With clear, financial incentives to serve Google’s web spiders, which regularly ‘crawl’ website content to determine its placement in searches, a common strategy involves placing hyperlinks on specific ‘anchor text’ – the actual words that you click on – that benefit that site’s PageRank for keywords rather than tailor links to readers. (Source: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/google-link-hyperlink-seo)

There are many factors that can make a sentence hard to read. However, two of the most common problems are run-on sentences and sentences with multiple ideas. In fact, you often see these problems working together.

Recently, one of my LinkedIn connections, Jessica Taylor, responded to a bad sentence with an interesting comment.

She said, “Where would I breathe?”

For context, Jessica is a voiceover actress. She makes a living out of reading things out loud. This gave her a unique filter through which to review these sentences. There was no place to take a break.

Jessica’s comment got me thinking. If there isn’t time to take a break physically, there’s also no time to take a break mentally.

The reader’s brain has to work through and hold onto a lot of information before it has a chance to try to create meaning. That’s why in so many cases you find yourself having to go back and read the sentence multiple times.

Our brains aren’t good at processing a lot of information at once. They get overwhelmed easily.

If you want someone to understand you, you must communicate your ideas simply and clearly.

We’ve developed a simple rule to help improve your communication. It’s called the 1:1:1 Rule:

  • One idea per sentence (or bullet point)
  • One theme per paragraph (or slide)
  • One decision/action per communication/presentation

The 1:1:1 Rule is deceptive. It looks easy. In reality, it’s quite difficult. Most of us are accustomed to combing our thoughts and ideas.

Clear communication takes practice and effort.

Look at your communication carefully. Ask yourself if you are being simple and clear.

Try out what I am officially naming the Jessica Taylor Rule. Read the sentences out loud. If you find that you don’t have time to catch your breath, stop. It’s time to revise. If you can’t catch your breath physically, your audience won’t be able to catch their breath mentally.

The more you help your reader understand you, the more likely they are to get your message.

Here are some options for revising the “bad sentences” mentioned earlier. Each uses the 1:1:1 rule to try to simplify and clarify the message.

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Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Speaker, and Author with Avail Advisors. Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication. Contact Brad at brad.kolar@availadvisors.com.

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