Clarity of language counts.  Take, for instance, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who found himself at the heart of a firestorm over imprecise language.  While discussing the sequestration effect on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, he said ”there are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can’t come back this fall.”   Yesterday on the apology circuit, he noted that “pink slips” – as in firings – was “probably the wrong word.”  And he was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “Language matters, and I need to be very, very clear.”

In this context, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Duncan misspoke inadvertently or whether his words were just part of the political theater dominating the headlines. The secretary was right about one thing—it is very important to be clear.  We need to say what we mean and mean what we say.  Sounds like a simple proposition.  Unfortunately, obfuscation seems to carry the day.  

It happens in almost every part of our lives, from the explanations for assembling toys and furniture to mammogram result letters that call for “further evaluation,” rather than simply instruct women to come back for a repeat.

Being clear would seem like a fairly easy task.  It isn’t.  Clarity of speech is directly tied to clarity of thought – especially amid the day-to-day hustle and bustle when most of us don’t feel we have the time to think. We simply react.  Or, instead of striving for real meaning, we go for language that will get us a reaction.  Being clear is hard work and requires a little SWEAT equity.  Here are five tips to help you be better understood.

  •         Stop and think.  What am I really trying to say?  Am I trying to persuade someone to do something they don’t want to do?  Am I trying to inform someone so that they can make a decision or take some action?  Am I delivering bad news that I wish I didn’t have to deliver? Understanding your own purpose for your communications is an important first step. Everything else will flow from that.
  •         Write down your thoughts without worrying how they sound initially, The important thing is to put your thoughts on paper so you can see and work with them.  Writing stimulates thinking, which is why it often feels so painful.
  •         Edit.  Look carefully at what you’ve written and determine if the ideas flow in a logical order. Is what you’ve written really what you mean to say? Sometimes when we see our words on paper, it becomes very clear that our language is confusing or fuzzy.  Every word matters, so choose them carefully.
  •         Ask yourself if an 11-year-old would understand what you’ve said.  If the answer is no, go back to the drawing board.
  • ·         Test.  Show your work to someone else.   Words carry meaning and associations that you may not be aware of.  Test your thoughts and your language with someone who is similar to your intended audience. 

We may not share a public stage with Arne Duncan.  But we all run the risk of misspeaking.  And sometimes we fail to realize the impact our words will have.  Taking the time to SWEAT it out, will help you minimize this risk.