The great Cunard liner Queen Mary was originally to have been given a different name. The original intention was to christen the ship Queen Victoria. However, when a Cunard official was dispatched to Buckingham Palace to inform George V of the choice, the official wasn’t clear in his communication. He told the king that the company had decided to name the imposing new vessel after the “greatest of all English queens.”
“Oh,” the delighted monarch exclaimed, “my wife will be so pleased!” thinking he meant her. The Cunard official didn’t have the courage to correct the king’s mistake. So he instead went back to the Cunard offices, explained the situation, and the ship was renamed Queen Mary.
A mentor of mine in the 1970s, Charles Blair, used to tell me, “Have an understanding so there won’t be a misunderstanding.” In other words, you must be able to see something clearly in your mind before you can say it clearly with your mouth. Anytime people cannot articulate an idea well, it’s a sure sign that they don’t possess a good enough understanding of it. This is probably never more evident than when an insecure or ill-informed person in a position of authority speaks. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, pointed out, “Insecure managers create complexity. Frightened, nervous managers use thick, convoluted planning books and busy slides filled with everything they’ve known since childhood.”
I once became the leader of an organization and inherited a career navy man as the COO. He had created a massive policy manual prior to my arrival, and it made me think of an observation by David Evans, who criticized the way the military tends to communicate. Evans illustrated it with the following simple statement and the kinds of revisions that are implemented in the armed services:
“Have an understanding so there won’t be a misunderstanding.”
1st Draft: A word to the wise is sufficient.
2nd Draft: A word to the wise may be sufficient.
3rd Draft: It is believed that a word to the wise may be
4th Draft: It is believed by some that a word to the wise may
be sufficient under some conditions.
5th Draft: Indications are that it is believed by some that a word
to the wise may be sufficient under some conditions, although this may possibly vary under differing circumstances. This conclusion may not be supportable under detailed analysis and should be used only in a general sense with a full realization of the underlying assumptions.
My COO’s manual was too thick and complicated. As I looked at it, I wondered how my staff could possibly understand and follow it if I couldn’t. I got rid of it.
If you’re preparing to communicate with an audience, you would be wise to follow the advice of professional speaker Peter Meyer. He says:
Most speakers put too much into their talk. There is only so much you can cover in an hour and expect learning to occur. We have started to follow a specific model to make sure that we do not break this rule. I call it Jigsaw Management.
As you lay out your ideas, imagine that you are going to ask your audience to assemble a large jigsaw puzzle from scratch. Your ideas are the pieces.
When you are doing a puzzle, the first thing that you do is to look at the boxtop. Your talk should have one of those. It tells you which pieces you want to present.
Now, how many ideas do you have in your puzzle? Remember how much harder it is to assemble a 1000-piece puzzle than a 100-piece one if you only have an hour to do it? If you have more than a few main ideas, you have too many. I keep my talks to three ideas max, and that can still be too much for an hour.
Ask yourself another question before you start organizing your talk. If you were playing with a puzzle and you had only an hour to finish, would you want the person with the puzzle to hide the boxtop from you? Would you want the person to add extra pieces to the pile? Don’t be guilty of the same when you do your talks.
In other words, no matter how wonderful the idea is to you, don’t include it unless it fits exactly into the picture on your boxtop.
Second, as you start the talk, be sure to tell your audience what the boxtop looks like. Tell them what you will show them so they know where the ideas fit.
In the end, people are persuaded not by what we say, but by what they understand. When you speak clearly and simply, more people can understand what you’re trying to communicate. Being simple as a communicator isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength! Author and critic John Ruskin observed, “The greatest thing a human ever does in the world is to see something and tell others what he saw in a plain way. Hundreds can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly and tell others clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.”
In the end, people are persuaded not by what we say, but by what they understand.
Maxwell, J. C. (2010). Everyone communicates, few connect: what the most effective people do differently. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.