How to be clear

Published (updated: ) in notes, working in the open.

Sign in a hospital reading "PLEASE REMEMBER TO PARTIALLY CLOSE THE SHARPS BIN"

You can spend a lot of time coming up with tactics and strategies for your communication, but the most valuable tool you can use is also the simplest: clarity.

If you communicate with clarity, people will spend less time trying to interpret what you’re saying. As a result, they’ll understand you faster, with less effort.

Make what you’re saying easy and quick to read and understand, and people will respond by reading more of it, and asking you fewer questions afterwards.

It helps to try and be a bit user-centered, or reader-centered.

Think about what your readers might already know

The thing you want to communicate about already makes sense to you, and everyone on your team, because you’re immersed in it every day. You already have a crystal clear mental model to refer to.

But you can – and should – never assume that people reading about your work will have the same mental model. They might have a different model, if they are colleagues in the same organisation but not in the same team. They might have the same model, but see it from a different angle, if they are the leaders you report to.

Or they might have no mental model at all, if they are members of the public or strangers on the internet, or customers whose only model of your work is the end result that they see, from their end.

Every time you write something or create something that communicates about your work, you need to consider these varying mental models. Just as good web content is written for a reading age of 9, you will probably need to simplify your communication for most people, to make it as accessible as possible.

Try to understand their mental model of your work, and write to accommodate that.

Write shorter sentences, with simpler words

Writing with clarity doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but it’s something that develops with practice.

It’s hard to turn something complicated and full of nuance into short, simple statements. People tend to try and add lots of caveats, just in case. The result is often long sentences with lots of commas and clauses. Stuff that’s hard to read.

Your goal is to make everything easy to read.

If you’re struggling to picture what clear writing looks like, buy a copy of the Financial Times or The Economist. Pay attention to the way articles their are written, to the word choices and sentence structures. These are publications aimed at wealthy, educated people, but when you analyse how they’re written, you’ll see the goal is clarity. They take complicated news stories and make them easy to understand. Try to copy this style where you can.

Constantly think about audiences

A lot of communication fails because the same thing – a piece of text, or a video clip, or a presentation – is used over and over again to communicate to different audiences.

Understandably, writing separate texts for every different audience means more work, and most people don’t have time for that, so they skip it.

But that’s often the cause of the failure.

Communicating a team’s progress to a leader in the same organisation probably shouldn’t be the same as communicating a product’s progress to users. The messages are similar, and they overlap, but they’re not the same, and they shouldn’t be expressed in the same ways.

Communicating about an idea, or a proposal, to a prospective new client should not be the same as communicating the same idea to your team once you’ve won the work: again, the messages are similar and they overlap, but they’ll work better and be clearer if they’re written separately, with some thought given to the audience in each cast.

Good communication happens when you spend more time thinking about your different audiences, and more time preparing new variants of materials you’ve used before. Each new variant written with specific focus on what that audience needs to know.

Communicate with purpose

Before starting any new piece of communication work, I always ask: “What’s the purpose? What’s the point?”

Always start by thinking about what you want an audience to understand, know, or do after they’ve seen a piece of communication.

Knowing that helps you see the end result more clearly, sooner. It helps you avoid going down the wrong path, and focus the content of the comms on that goal, for that audience.

If you can’t identify and clearly express the purpose up front, stop working on it and find out why the purpose is so muddy. Sometimes, that will mean you stop completely; other times, it will help you and your colleagues re-think what this piece of comms is for, and create something better as a result.

Clear communication helps teams solve problems

Those audiences I’ve described: they might be your customers. Your funders. Your boss. Your boss’s boss.

They might be colleagues in your organisation, who want to make sure they’re not repeating work that you’re already doing.

They might be people in other organisations, who would love to learn from your mistakes.

They might be potential new recruits, who are keeping a close eye on your organisation and want to know what it’s really like to work there.

Every audience has slightly different needs, and knows slightly different things about you and your work. The only way to meet all these needs for all these people is to simplify.

Think about your audiences. Communicate often, in short bursts, about one thing at a time. Make sure there’s a reason for each new piece of communication to exist. Say what you mean. Be as clear as you can be. Your team will be more successful as a result.


Giles Turnbull helps organisations communicate more like humans do: briefly, clearly, creatively. Find out more at www.usethehumanvoice.com.

Related: All first drafts are bad drafts (and that’s what makes them good). A better post than this one, I think.

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