Contributed by Etan Basseri
How I discovered the single best-kept secret to effective communication.
Before I was a consultant, I was a trial lawyer and appeared in court on a weekly basis. While occasionally this meant delivering prepared materials, more often than not I had to speak off-the-cuff in front of a judge who had very little time and patience. My job also involved interacting with many non-lawyers, which meant most of my clients, and sometimes opponents, had no use for legal jargon. Add that to the high-volume practice with over 100 cases per month and you can quickly recognize why clear communication was so critical.
T.V. and film lead us to believe the courtroom is the last place we expect to hear plain English used. From Matlock to Law & Order, on-screen portrayals of the courtroom regularly include attorneys battling their cases using dense legal jargon. Common citizens watch on, intimidated and perplexed. Yet it is clear communication, the kind which even non-lawyers can understand, that keeps our justice system moving.
Monday mornings were a common day for court hearings. Starting at 9 a.m., I would be grilled by a judge on the facts of my cases and have to accurately cite the relevant laws within a matter of seconds (tip: a three-ring binder and flag system worked for me). If I misspoke, there were consequences. On a good day I might be ridiculed in front of other lawyers in the courtroom leaving only my ego bruised. On a bad day the judge would dismiss my case entirely, which had a major impact on my clients’ lives. It was not only important to select the language most appropriate for a specific audience, but to also be precise in my word choice. This did not mean abandoning all terminology, since as in any industry, many words have specific meanings. Rather, clear communication requires choosing the right words to achieve the desired effect.
After practicing law for three years, I decided I was ready for a change and began pursuing opportunities outside the legal field. And after careful consideration, I found a great gig at a high-tech startup that focused on cloud infrastructure automation. Moving to a new role in a new industry meant learning a whole new vocabulary (thank you, Wikipedia).
While the new terminology certainly was a challenge at first, I focused on soaking up as much as I could from my co-workers: authentic people who were passionate about what they were working on and wanted to share it with others. The lexicon may have been different from law, but it was no less precise: ‘We had more users this month!’ or ‘What happened, we have fewer users this month?’ The ability to integrate this new vocabulary and continue to communicate in a clear, easy to understand manner was vital.
Later I joined Revel to be a part of the management consulting industry. This meant learning another set of vocabulary. But this time I found much of the common vocabulary included imprecise words. Think about it – lawyers use phrases like, appear and show cause, move for summary judgment, and issue bench warrant for failure to appear, which leave very little room for conjecture. Engineers use phrases like, perform functional test, provision new server, and release to production, which are all very specific.
In contrast, the consulting world is filled with mysterious phrases such as, enable innovation across verticals, and flatten the hierarchy to enable increased frontline decision making effectiveness. Just writing that makes my head hurt. Why do people resort to language that is so devoid of value, precision and authenticity?
“Be authentic and say what you really mean.”
As a result, my ongoing effort is to eliminate business jargon from my vocabulary. While this doesn’t mean I avoid all industry terminology, I embrace layman’s terms whenever I can so I can more easily connect with the people I meet. On my most recent project, I had the opportunity to work closely with software engineers who would have normally given me blank stares if I were to tell them, “We need a process to scale out our change footprint across the enterprise to maximize the ROI of the future state model.” But if I said, “We need to share what works on your team so other teams can learn and adapt it,” my message would resonate.
Clarity Through Simplicity
I became a lawyer because I enjoyed the freedom of creating clarity through simplicity: to solve problems using clear, open and honest language.
I became a consultant so I could solve different problems with the same approach. The great thing about this approach to communication is it works at all levels of management and disciplines. Whether you’re speaking with a senior leader, a salesperson, a data scientist, or a receptionist, they all understand and appreciate plain English. That’s why I’m watching what I say, and how I say it.