Clear Communication Matters

Each of us is 100% unique, even twins or triplets. While their DNA may be remarkably the same, they’re not absolute clones of each other. There will still be a few variables that will make them unique, even if they look remarkably similar.

So what about the rest of us? We’re all different, from our DNA to our physical size / gender / skin color / background … everything.

And yet we too often act as though how we see the world is the way everyone does. We use terms we understand, we write as we would want to see it, and we’re often surprised to find out that someone else “misunderstood” us when we thought we were being so clear!

I’m sure most of us can remember at least one time – either in a personal or professional area – when we were misunderstood or we didn’t understand someone else. Did we lay blame on the other person, certain that we couldn’t have made such an error? Did we take it upon ourselves to straighten things out? Did we take the time to learn from it or just move on?

Success wears many hats, and one of them is clear communication – clear to the sender and the receiver. If we can’t be clear, we can get a reputation for being difficult to deal with, and who needs that?

Here are three ways we can strengthen our communication skills, which will give us more of the results we want, and help us look and sound like someone others want to be around.

  1. Use this version of the KISS acronym: Keep it short and simple. Many of us prefer to use “utilize” rather than “use,” but there’s no need to do that, especially in business writing. We don’t need to be a walking version of a thesaurus. Simple, easily understood language works best in most cases.
  2. Give specific timeframes. Terms like “soon,” “later,” or especially ASAP (as soon as possible) have led to many unexpected results. Your thought may be “by tomorrow at 5,” but the other person’s might be “when I get to it.” Without clarity, there could be a tough conversation later about why something was done late or too quickly.

As an example: Recently a group received this message: “If we didn’t already send the new policy out to everyone, we need to do it asap!”

The person in charge of sending stuff out did just that within an hour. But the message was only to find out if we had already sent the policy out. If we hadn’t, we would then do so with a note explaining why it was being sent out now.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw

  1. Reinforce the wanted behavior. Many of us have heard others (maybe ourselves?) say: “Don’t forget to …” do whatever. But how many times has the person hearing it promptly done just that? Forgotten to do it? And yet, they were actually doing exactly what they heard, which was the wrong verb. Verbs are powerful words that often indicate action, and our brain responds to them very well, even if incorrectly in some cases.

Years ago, I heard a young woman at a swimming pool do something I thought was remarkable. Her kids, along with several others, were running around as kids do – which is a dangerous thing at a swimming pool – and instead of saying “Kids! Stop running!” she called out, “Kids! Please walk slowly!”

The result? The kids stopped as though they’d hit a wall. They actually walked for a while. Of course, being kids, they finally started running again. And each time, she repeated in a friendly voice, “Kids! Remember to walk!” I was astonished, so I asked her about how she’d gotten the kids to do that. She told me she was a grade school teacher, and she’d learned over time that telling kids what not to do reinforced that action, the one she didn’t want! Using a verb that was the opposite of what she was asking was doing immense harm. Saying “Don’t run!” actually caused the kids to continue running most of the time.

She learned to focus on the result she wanted – telling them to sit, or read, or line up for recess – whatever she was looking for, and it worked.

The other upside to this is that no one feels accused of being about to do the wrong thing. The minute we say “Don’t forget to send out the memo,” our voice may well sound accusatory, especially if this is a typical issue. And even if our voice is steady, it’s entirely possible the listener may think, “What! Does she really need to tell me that? When have I ever forgotten?”

Airline personnel are experts in knowing to never say “Don’t panic!” when something scary happens like the plane suddenly dropping several hundred feet, because it would plant the very seed they do not want to sprout. So they focus on the positives, on the needed results, helping the passengers stay calmer than they might otherwise be able to. They use the right language.

“All passengers, please return to your seats. Please buckle your seatbelt and remain seated. Be sure to put on your own mask before helping others.” All positive and constructive language. Of course, the passengers may still be scared, but the language is at least not making that scary experience worse for most. We do what we’re told; we don’t have to even think about it.

All in all, over the years, I’ve found that remembering at least these three ideas has allowed me to build stronger and more positive bonds between myself and others.

How about you? Does this resonate with you? What might you add to it? 


Susan Rooks
Susan Rooks
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented.

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  1. Number one made me laugh, Susan, since you are teaching us all these odd words that, now advised, we should never use.

    I am horrible when it comes to convoluted sentences. At least in the first draft. I believe it comes from a lifelong inclination/indoctrination that I am not allowed to sound too forceful. A passive sentence is weaker than the same words in active form, and double negations softens it even more. It is hard to unlearn this kind of BS. That is why I love the work of Deborah Tannen. (She has some really good videos no Youtube for any reader who doesn’t know about her work.)

    Thank you for number two. When exactly is “at your earliest convenience”? Probably yesterday. But one has to know the local code speak because setting everything else aside is really not that convenient.

    I wish I had known the third point 20 years ago :-).

  2. Thanks so much, Byron! Yes, when we can talk to individuals, we surely can joke about that kind of stuff. I’m somewhere in the middle, appreciating the joke but not wanting to even think about crashing!

    Have a great weekend, and thanks for taking the time to read and comment!


  3. Susan: Good stuff, as usual, always a pleasure to read. A personal note from my past life as a pilot: I learned pretty quickly which of my passengers I could use casual banter with, and even kid around with, and I’d do that. An example: ‘Flying isn’t dangerous; crashing is.’ Other passengers would never tolerate such cavalier language, so I stayed positive, and calm, and professional. I learned to read their body language pretty well, an important part of communication, of course.
    Thanks again.