Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today, I want to look at how to communicate clearly in English.
There are times when you want to impress people with your language abilities. Maybe you’re in a job interview, or meeting with some hot-shot business people for the first time. Sure, these situations happen. But there are actually far more situations that require the opposite approach. I mean situations where you don’t want to risk confusing people, so you want to make sure you’re communicating clearly.
Maybe you’re giving instructions, or helping someone with a technical problem, or giving a presentation, or talking with someone who doesn’t have the same language skills as you…There are countless situations where your focus should be on simplicity and directness, rather than verbal pyrotechnics.
In our last lesson, I talked about clear pronunciation and word choice. Today, I want to look at making clear sentences and organizing your message.
When it comes to sentences, shoot for simple and short. Rather than stringing a bunch of ideas into one long sentence, break it up into several short ones. For example, here’s a sentence that might confuse some people: “Although the forecasts are positive, we’ve decided to cut costs due to current cashflow problems.” There are three ideas there, in one sentence. If you break that up into smaller chunks, it might sound like this: “Forecasts are positive. But we have cashflow problems. So, we’ve decided to cut costs.”
Notice that I used the words “but” and “so?” Those simple linking words are really useful, and really clear. There’s no need to use “nevertheless” and “consequently” if you’re trying to make sure your point is clear. Yes, it’s important to show the relationships between ideas. But you don’t always have to sound like an academic.
There’s something else that can add clutter to our sentences: the softening words and phrases we use to be diplomatic, polite, or careful. These expressions can be very important when the situation requires. But not all situations or audiences require such diplomacy.
I mean, if you’re on the phone helping someone fix a computer problem, you don’t need to say “Now, if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind trying to restart the computer?” That’s ridiculous, right? So instead, you can just use “now please restart your computer.” Or if you’re talking to your assistant, you don’t need to say “I was wondering if you might be able to complete the paperwork sometime soon?” No, it’s better just to say “could you finish the paperwork soon?”
Did you notice how direct and simple that question was? In fact, we have some very confusing ways of asking questions in English. And if you’re trying to be clear, you should avoid some of these. That includes tag questions, such as “you’re quite busy, aren’t you?” And negative questions, like “aren’t you going to read my report?” Many people aren’t sure how to answer a tag question or negative question. I mean, if you are going to read the report, do you say “yes” or “no?” Confusing, isn’t it?
All right, the last thing I want to talk about is how we structure our messages. And I mean longer messages, like a set of instructions or something. First off, it’s good to be clear about purpose. Tell people what you’re going to tell them. That’s exactly what I did when I said “the last thing I want to talk about is how we structure our messages.” You see, when you heard that, you knew exactly what I was going to talk about next. You didn’t have to just figure it out on your own.
Secondly, it’s a good idea to use words like “secondly.” We call this “signposting.” Signposting is basically giving clear structure and logic to what you’re saying. That means introducing things clearly. It means outlining, using words like “first, second, third” and “last.” But it also means being clear about how your ideas fit together. That might mean using expressions like “there are several good reasons for this idea” and “let me give you one example of this situation.” Signposting makes it a lot easier for people to follow what you’re saying, and to remember it!
Lastly, it’s a good idea to summarize what you’ve said. Just a little recap is good enough. And you can introduce your summary using signposting expressions like “to sum up” or “what I’ve been trying to say is…”
All right, now I’d like to quickly recap. Today, I’ve talked about how to make clear sentences. Clear sentences are short and simple. And clear ideas are connected with simple linking words. Clear sentences are not full of softening words or diplomatic language. And clear questions are not tag questions or negative questions. Finally, remember to use signposting to help listeners follow what you’re saying.
That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.