When communicating, be succinct

In his book Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds writes that one day, when teaching on the importance of eliminating unnecessary words when communicating, one of his students told a story that he had learned when growing up in India. 

Here’s the story.

When Vijay opened his store, he put up a sign that said: “We Sell Fresh Fish Here” His father stopped by and said that the word “We” suggests an emphasis on the seller rather than the customer, and is really not needed. So the sign was changed to “Fresh Fish Sold Here” 

His brother came by and suggested that the word “here” could be done away with—it was superfluous. Vijay agreed and changed the sign to “Fresh Fish Sold.” 

Next, his sister came along and said the sign should just say “Fresh Fish.” Clearly, it is being sold; what else would you be doing?

Later, his neighbor stopped by to congratulate him. Then he realized that all passers-by could easily tell that the fish was fresh and that mentioning the word “fresh” actually made it sound defensive as though there was room for doubt about the freshness. So, he changed the sign to just: “Fish”

As Vijay was walking back to his shop after a break he noticed that one could identify the fish from its smell from far away, even at a distance from which one could barely read the sign. He knew there was no need for the word “Fish” so he took the sign down.

When writing or speaking, particularly in a business context, use as few words as necessary. Readers are impatient and they don’t want to work harder than necessary to get your message. 

Here are examples of tightening your prose.

  • “Learning is a process that requires…” becomes “Learning requires…”
  • “They grew slack in their work for the seminar” becomes “They neglected the seminar.”
  • “In close proximity to” becomes “near.”
  • “In the majority of cases” becomes “usually.”
  • “He stayed home due to the fact that he was ill” becomes “He stayed home because he was ill.”
  • “He’ll return in the near future” becomes “He’ll return soon.”
  • “The survivors were in a desperate condition” becomes “The survivors were desperate.”
  • The theater has seating accommodation for 600” becomes “The theater seats 600.” 

How would you shorten these phrases?

  • “The aircraft had a long-range capability.”
  • “He agreed to play on an amateur basis.”
  • “At the present time…”
  • “Due to the fact that…”

If you want a severe challenge shortening a sentence, work on this: According to Wikipedia, the longest grammatically correct sentence is contained in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. The sentence is composed of 1,292 words (in the 1951 Random House version). 

A lot can be said in few words. Albert Einstein’s doctoral dissertation was only 26 pages long. When he first submitted his dissertation, it was rejected for being too short. Einstein added a single sentence and sent it back, whereupon it was accepted.

Leaders, the next time you communicate to your constituency, trim down the number of words you use and your message will be easier to understand and better received.

If you want to read one book on improving your writing skills, I recommend William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, third edition. 

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Avoid the hot stove effect

The hot-stove effect was first proffered by humorist Mark Twain.

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

Throughout life, be careful not to overreact to painful experiences. Failures, embarrassing moments, and hurtful events – if not properly processed – can have an inordinate impact on our lives and dissuade us from “jumping on the stove” again.

Carefully study and analyze your experiences and put them into proper perspective (even positive experiences, if not properly processed, can lead to unhealthy behavior).

For example:

  • You may abandon a helpful technology because your first experience with it was distasteful.
  • Some divorcees feign the thought of marrying again because of the hurt they sustained in a former marriage.
  • Not being accepted into your school of our choice may discourage you from pursuing higher education.

I have been a public speaker and teacher for 30 years, but two embarrassing moments in my early years might have derailed this aspect of my career.

When I was eight years old I was asked (with no prior notice) to stand in front of my Sunday School class and pray aloud. I froze…awkward silence ensued…kids giggled…I was embarrassed.

But the following week, one of my teachers took the time to meet with me and he spoke words of comfort and encouragement, helped me compose a written prayer, and coached me as I practiced reading it aloud in the same room where the nightmare took place. Then he arranged for me to speak the prayer in the same Sunday School Class the next Sunday. All went well and I fully recovered from the debacle.

In high school, I was vice president of my senior class. Once, when speaking before the student body, I planned on using the phrase “hook, line, and sinker,” as in, “he was so naive that he swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.” But in my speech the phrase came out “sink, line and hooker.”

My classmates were unmerciful. Unfortunately, no one helped me process what had happened; fortunately, I thought carefully about the incident by myself and decided that though it was a bad experience, it need not be a life-changing one.

A wonderful way to love others is to recognize when they may be susceptible to the hot-stove effect and then take the initiative to help them process the incident and put it into proper perspective. I will be forever grateful for my Sunday School teacher (I cannot even remember his name); he might have salvaged my future career.

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Don’t waste people’s time

Time is a precious commodity. If traded on the commodities market, its value would be incalculable. But alas, time cannot be bought or sold. And while the length of our lives varies and is unpredictable, the number of hours we have in each day is fixed.

Many books have been written on how to maximize your time. Read them and learn. You are the steward of your own time.

This essay focuses on the negative influence that people can have on other people’s time. In other words, if you want to waste your own time, that’s up to you, but don’t waste my time. Likewise, I don’t want to waste your time.

So let’s agree…

Be punctual.
If you have an appointment with someone at 1:00 p.m. and you arrive at 1:05, you have squandered five minutes of her time. To be on time you must be early; it’s nearly impossible to be precisely on time – time is moving too fast. For instance, if a meeting starts at 1:00 you can’t walk in 1:00 – that occurs in a milli-second and then becomes the past. You must arrive before 1:00.

Be organized.
When you are responsible for a project that involves other people, you must be organized or you’ll waste their time. You must predetermine what needs to be accomplished and know the quickest way to do it.

Plan ahead.
Plans exist in the future. The past is history, the present is reality. Always have a plan for what the future can look like.

Be decisive.
Often, it is wise to postpone a decision until it must be made – careful contemplation and monitoring changing variables are good reasons to delay a decision. But when a decision needs to be made, do so.

Be quick, not slow.
By and large, slow is not good. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE would ask his protégés, “Who wants to be slow?” It was a rhetorical question; I hope no one raised his or her hand. While it’s good to be thorough, careful, wise, circumspect, cautious, and deliberate – don’t be slow.

Monitor conversations and keep them on track.
When you and I are talking to each other, let’s pay attention to what we’re talking about and use our time wisely. For instance, don’t spend time talking about irrelevant topics.

A man (whom I did not know) once approached me and said, “Don, I know you lived in Austin, Texas, for a few years. Did you know a man named Ted Wallenburg?” I replied that I didn’t, but he spent the next four minutes telling me all about Ted, a man who had no connection to our lives. Why did he do that?

Also, don’t repeat yourself. When you and I are conversing, I will listen carefully and comprehend what you’re saying. I get it. So you don’t need to say it again. If I don’t understand, I’ll ask for clarification. Circular dialogue is a waste of time.

And let’s carefully consider the topics we want to discuss and allocate our time wisely. If we have only 20 minutes to converse, let’s not talk 12 minutes about an insignificant issue.

When I was 13 years old, we lived next door to an engineer whose hobby was rebuilding Volkswagen engines. One summer I served as his apprentice, so on warm summer evenings we rebuilt engines in his garage.

One of the first lessons he taught me was, “Don, try to anticipate what needs to happen next and act accordingly – hand me the right tool, fetch the next part to be installed – always be thinking two or three steps ahead in the process.”

That’s a great lesson to learn because it saves time.

Understand what can happen simultaneously and what must happen sequentially, and act accordingly.

Pay attention.
President Reagan was buried on June 11, 2004. It was a dreary, rainy day. Nancy Reagan and her family stood in the drizzling rain to watch the casket being taken from the Capitol Rotunda to the National Cathedral. A young military escort held an umbrella over Mrs. Reagan to shield her from the elements. In a moment of mental lapse, the young man allowed the umbrella to drift off to the side, exposing Nancy to the rain. She reached up, grabbed the man’s hand, and yanked the umbrella back into place.

Ouch. I can just imagine what the young man’s commanding officer might have said to him after the funeral: “Son, your only job of the day was to hold an umbrella over Mrs. Reagan. That’s not a difficult assignment. Millions of people were watching. What were you thinking?”

A Boy Scouts leader used to tell his boys, “If you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late. If you are late you owe everyone ice cream.”

I like that. Don’t waste my time.

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Add margins to your life

Plus - 12 best books I read last year – book 6 of 12


You need margin to think. You need margin to play. You need margin to laugh. You need margin to dream. You need margin to have impromptu conversations. You need margin to seize unanticipated opportunities. Mark Batterson

It’s hard to walk on a narrow, straight line. There’s little room for error so even trying is stressful. Walking between two parallel lines is easier, especially if the gap between the two lines is broad.

As you walk through life, give yourself some margin.

In his book Fairness is Overrated, Tim Stevens shares these thoughts about the benefits of having margin in your life.

  • Margin makes you pleasant; no margin makes you grumpy.
  • Margin allows you to be generous; no margin makes you Scrooge-like.
  • Margin helps you listen. Without margin, you come across as someone who doesn’t care.
  • Margin gives you space to learn, grow, and dream. Without margin you become stale and empty.

We need to maintain margin in our schedule ( free time), finances (discretionary funds), emotional energy (time away from high-maintenance people and situations), and expectations (of ourselves and others).

I recently asked members of my staff why we all struggle with creating margins in life. Here are some of their responses:

  • Cell phones, social media – I’m always connected.
  • I have difficulty saying “no.”
  • Margins must be proactively scheduled/planned; I just don’t do that.
  • Boundaries help create margins; I just don’t create boundaries in my life.
  • I have unrealistic expectations of what I should produce so I’m always in hyper-productivity mode.
  • Some psychological baggage from my past makes it hard for me to slow down; in an unhealthy way, my sense of well-being is tied to my staying busy.

In a separate post, we’ll talk about “tightening up your life.” Some people have too much margin; they are unproductive and irresponsible. But this week, analyze your life in terms of margin.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

12 best books I read last year – book 6 of 12

Chasing Venus – Andrea Wulf, 2012. On two days in 1761 and 1768, astronomers observed Venus traveling across the face of the sun. They used the data to calculate the dimensions of our solar system. If you like history and science you’ll enjoy this book. Click here for more information from Amazon.