At the C-suite level presentation skills are almost always at least adequate. In other words the CEO is confident enough to get up in front of a group of people, speak clearly and string a sentence together. Presentation skills are practically never the reason that their communication fails to be effective - the communication fails because they cannot write.
It’s hard to be effective when people can’t understand what you’re trying to say. Clear and simple writing ensures that your message never gets lost between you and your audience.
Unfortunately, many CEO's think they need to “look smart” by using big words and complex sentence structures. The reality is that the simpler you write, the more intelligent you seem to others. A study done at Princeton University manipulated the complexity of the vocabulary and writing style of documents and gave them to students. Over and over again, the simpler versions were rated as coming from a more intelligent writer than the more complex drafts.
Smart writing is simple writing.
Clear and simple writing is actually quite difficult to do. It requires you to think hard about your topic, get at its core, and then put that core in terms that your audience can understand. Here are a few tips on writing and speaking with greater clarity:
- Write or speak so a 12 year old can understand. If a 12 year old can understand your speech or article, then chances are an adult of average education can too. If you ever get stuck with what to say to, grab a 12 year old and talk the issue through with them face to face. It’s amazing what keeping this rule in mind can do to help make you a clearer communicator.
- Use strong verbs. Avoid is, are, was, were, be, being, been. So instead of saying “Diane was killed by Jim,” say, “Jim killed Diane.” Shorter, clearer, and punchier.
- Keep average sentence length to about 20 words. Sentence length is one of the biggest factors in determining how easy it is to understand what you’re saying or writing. Ideas can get lost in long sentences. While you should avoid really long sentences as much as possible, you don’t want all your sentences to be just five words each either. That makes your writing and speaking sound choppy and rushed. Shoot for an average of about 20 words a sentence. And mix sentences of varying lengths together.
- Keep paragraphs short. Ideally, each paragraph should contain just one idea. This ensures that your reader doesn’t get lost in a jumble of different points. When you write long paragraphs, it’s easy for more than one idea to sneak in. Avoid this by keeping paragraphs short - say 5 or 6 sentences a paragraph.
- Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word would work just as well. If you have a choice between a fancy word and a plain word, go with the plain word.