Striving for Conciseness and Clarity


Along with sincerity, clarity is one of our most valuable traits. When we can convey our thinking and answer questions with brevity and simply, we make it easier for others to understand us. An additional benefit is that we have a chance to stand out in a sea of words and create signal.

The need to be concise and get to the point is greater where complexity meets expertise in one domain. Not only we should care for fact checking and precision, we should also be able to explain things well. In The Unwritten Laws of Engineering W. J. King says, “strive for conciseness and clarity in oral or written reports; be extremely careful of the accuracy of your statements.” He says:

If there is one most irksome encumbrance to promoting urgency in the workplace, it is the person who takes a half-hour of rambling discourse to say what could be said in one sentence of twenty words. Engineers often surround the answer to a simple question with so many preliminaries and commentaries that the answer itself can hardly be discerned; they explain the answer before answering the question.

To be sure, very few questions endure simple answers without qualifications, but the important thing is first to state the essence of the matter as succinctly as possible. There are times when it is important to add the pertinent background to illuminate a simple statement, but try to convey the maximum information in the minimum time.

Many engineers lose the confidence of their superiors and associates by guessing when they do not know the answer to a direct question. A wrong answer is worse than no answer. If you do not know, say so, but also say, “I’ll find out right away.” If you are still not certain, indicate the degree of certainty upon which your answer is based. A reputation for conciseness, clarity, and reliability can be one of your most valuable assets.

W. J. King's advice is to adopt good communication principles like using conversational language and steering clear of technical jargon and slang, being precise, reporting results honestly and objectively, and learning to provide the relative importance of ideas, especially in writing.

We should “cultivate the habit of boiling matters down to their simplest terms.” We develop this skill with experience, and we get there by creating better habits, starting with willpower and metal discipline. He says,

The faculty for reducing apparently complicated situations to their basic, essential elements is a form of wisdom that must usually be derived from experience. But there seems to be marked differences between otherwise comparable individuals in this respect. Some people seem eternally disposed to “muddy the water,” or can “never see the forest for the trees.”

Perhaps one cannot correct this innate tendency simply by taking thought, but it appears to be largely a habit—a habit of withdrawing mentally to a suitable vantage point to survey a mass of facts in their proper perspective, or a habit of becoming immersed and lost in a sea of detail.

Make it a practice to integrate, condense, summarize, and simplify your facts rather than to expand, ramify, complicate, and disintegrate them.

Many meetings, for example, get nowhere after protracted wrangling until somebody finally says, “Well, it all boils down simply to this…,” or “Can’t we agree, however, that the basic point at issue is just this…,” or, “After all, the essential fact remains that….”

The mental discipline to instinctively impel one to the heart of the matter is one of the most valuable qualities of a good executive.

Self-control goes hand in hand with the ability to make good decisions. When we cultivate the habit of making clean-cut decisions, we reinforce our decision-making ability. In Eyes Wide Open, Noreena Hertz, Associate Director for the Centre for International Business at the University of Cambridge says, “the biggest decisions in our lives are often made on the basis of flawed information, weak assumptions, corrupted data, insufficient scrutiny of others, and a lack of self-knowledge.”

In The Unwritten Rules W. J. King provides some guidelines. He says:

This is, of course, a difficult and important part of a manager’s job. Some have a terrific struggle deciding even minor issues, mainly because they never get over being afraid of making mistakes. Normally, facility comes with practice, but it can be hastened by observing a few simple principles:

(1) Decisions will be easier and more frequently correct if you have the essential facts at hand. However, almost any manager can make decisions knowing all of the facts, whereas a good manager will make the same decisions without all the facts. So you might ask yourself: “Am I likely to lose more by giving a snap judgment or by waiting for more information?”

(2) You do not have to be right every time; nobody is.

(3) The very fact that a decision is difficult usually means that the advantages and drawbacks of the alternatives are pretty well balanced. It is likely better, in that case, to decide the matter now than to arrive at the best decision later. So take a position and see it through.

(4) It is futile to try to keep everybody happy. Give everyone a fair hearing, but after all have had their say, dispose of the matter decisively even if someone’s toes are stepped on. Otherwise, everyone will be dissatisfied, and many may accuse you of straddling the issues.

The following questions are helpful in choosing a course of action when the factors are indecisive:

• Does it expedite and forward the undertaking, or does it only produce procrastination and delay?

• Is it fair and square and aboveboard?

• Is it in line with established custom, precedence, or policy? A good reason is generally required for a departure.

• Is it in line with a previous decision or understanding? Even a good reason for a change might not offset the unfortunate impression of instability.

• Can we accept the risk? How does the penalty compare with the gain for each of the choices?

• Are there suitable future alternatives or corrective actions if a decision turns out to be misguided?

Research psychologist Gary Klein, a pioneer in naturalistic decision making, has observed indecision in leaders and managers. “They are afraid of making decisions, and so they hope that the situation will magically become clear,” he says. “And sometimes that happens, which rewards their procrastination. More often, it doesn’t happen, and they have missed windows of opportunity while chewing up time and energy.”

Clarity in communication is often a reflection of clarity of thought, which allows us to make better decisions about the relative importance of data and information. Biases distort our thinking, but they can also be useful, says Klein. However, to counter them, we should keep refining our decisions based on evidence.

In Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making, Klein explains how the conventional wisdom about decision making can get us into trouble. Because we often rely on what we think is reasonable, when often we are called to make decisions under unreasonable conditions. The core of his message is that experience can't be replaced by rules, procedures, or analytical methods.

Our world, he says, is complex and unpredictable:

The claims work best in well-ordered situations. Well-ordered domains are structured and stable. We know what causes the effects we want to achieve. We can think systematically about well-ordered domains because we know how they work. We can calculate what decisions to make and how to predict the future.

However, we don't usually live in that world of clarity. Much of the time we find ourselves in a different world-a world of shadows where we don't know all the causes or how they work, we can't pin down all the knowledge we need in order to be successful, and we aren't sure we understand the goals.

For example, if our problem is information overload, delaying a decision to gather more information is not going to help. We should learn to distinguish between things. For example, puzzles have a known or knowable solution, while mysteries often involve ambiguous and conflicting information. For the first we can develop rules, for the second we develop our abilities to deal with them.

Streetlights and Shadows is inspired by an old joke:

A policeman sees a drunk staring at the ground beneath a streetlight. “What are you doing?” the cop asks.

“Looking for my keys.” says the drunk. “I dropped them in the dark alley over there.”

“Then why are you over here?” asks the policeman, confused.

“Because the light’s so much better over here.”

The streetlights are our controlled environments where we look for answers —labs, classrooms, fixed timetables, and clear metrics. But things are more fluid in the real world. For that we need to rely more on tacit knowledge from our experience.

W. J. King's rule of thumb for decisions is to learn to navigate the line between analysis-paralysis, and evaluating the consequences as best we can. He says, “make clear-cut, swift decisions, but only if a mistake won’t create wreckage for you and your organization.”

The Unwritten Rules was first published in 1944 as three articles in Mechanical Engineering magazine. It has been in print as a book ever since, becoming a classic of engineering literature.