Ann Daniels
Director of Technical Services
APWA Kansas City Office

Do you ever listen to a speaker, walk away and scratch your head and say "Huh?" Have you ever tried to explain a new project to a citizens group and had them look at you with that cold, blank stare that says, "Huh?" One of the key elements of a good leader is the ability to speak to the designated audience in language that is clear and easily understood, yet not simplified to the point of boredom.

Making yourself understood is more difficult today because the English language is growing more complicated. When Abraham Lincoln composed the Gettysburg Address, he had only 114,000 words from which to choose. Today, there are over 600,000 words in Webster's Dictionary, and the temptation to use as many of these fancy new terms as possible is sometimes overwhelming. Furthermore, it's really easy to take a simple idea and make it complex.

For example, take a quote I read recently (author unknown): "It is not efficacious to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovative maneuvers" is just a fancy way to say, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Possibly members of the MENSA society would pick right up on this, but most of us would lose interest pretty quickly.

Then there are those leaders who try to give credibility and authority to a simple report by taking an idea like, "Where there is smoke, there is fire," and giving it new importance and a ring of authority by turning it into something along the lines of "Visible vapors that issue from carbonaceous materials are a harbinger of imminent conflagration." Totally lost me.

And don't you just hate those folks who speak in acronyms and buzzwords? Why can't they just say, "Here's the plan" instead of announcing "We need to dimensionalize this management initiative."

In 1998 The Wall Street Journal ran a story about a new corporate sport called "buzzword bingo." Employees keep score during meetings as their bosses spout clich‚s like "deliverables," "team player," etc. Those of us in government often speak our own alphabet language, i.e., "FHWA," "TEA-21," "EPA," "GPM," "QBS," and on and on. Not only do we use letters to represent words, we do it so quickly our audience has no idea what we mean. Attendees at the National LTAP Association meeting in Burlington, Vermont last July were really shocked when Joe Toole, FHWA liaison, shared a game of Bingo with the group. Everything from "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you" to "The check is in the mail" were all things we frequently use which can become frustrating to our listeners. However, he certainly made his point.

People who come to listen to your presentations or participate in your meetings have chosen to give you the benefit of their precious time. If you cannot make your reports, meetings, and presentations simple and to the point, time is wasted, and very little is accomplished. Furthermore, attendance at the next event will probably decrease. Put yourself in the listener's place. If you don't understand a word or concept, ask for a translation in clear, everyday language. This is not the time to impress listeners with your intelligence or clever twist of words.

So, before you prepare your next presentation or plan your next staff meeting, keep these Ten Principles of Clear Writing in mind.

  • Keep your sentences short.
  • Pick the simple word over the complex one.
  • Choose the familiar word over the obscure one.
  • Avoid unnecessary words.
  • Put action in your verbs.
  • Write the way you talk.
  • Use terms that your readers can picture.
  • Tie in with your listener's experience.
  • Make full use of variety.
  • Speak to express, not to impress.
  • Add some humor. People learn more when they laugh.
General (Ret.) Colin Powell shares these thoughts in A Leadership Primer — Part IV, "Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everyone can understand."

The most effective leaders understand the KISS principle, Keep It Simple, Stupid. You don't need to impress people to accomplish your task, but you will impress them if you can complete it and they understood from the outset what was going to happen. Keep your vision and priorities straight to the point and compelling, not cluttered and buzzword-laden.

Have you heard the message or are you still scratching your head and asking, "Huh"? I hope you can find a tip or two in this article that will assist you in making future presentations to the enjoyment and understanding of your listeners. Leadership and management skills involve more than a slap on the back to a good buddy, a well-told joke, or passing the buck to someone else to deliver your message. Make the most of your skills. If you find them lacking, take a few pointers. Everyone will benefit from the effort.

Ann Daniels will be the presenter at a Pre-Congress Workshop entitled, "Self-Assessment Using the Management Practices Manual — A Tool for Improving Operations and Management." The full-day workshop is on Saturday, August 23, beginning at 8:00 a.m. She can be reached at (800) 848-APWA or at