Blah, Blah, Blah: The Art Of Communication

If your efforts to communicate keep getting lost in translation, it’s time to try a better way to get your point across.

Let’s face it: Just about everyone believes they’re an effective communicator. But as the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once noted, the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it actually occurred.

If you think this is an amusing overstatement, stop for a minute to recall the most recent department meeting you sat (or slept) through. Or the brain-numbing presentation you heard at the last professional seminar you attended. Or the confusing impromptu sit-down you had with a few engineers down the hall or with colleagues out in the field. An honest analysis reveals a hard truth: Good communication is difficult.

So how do you avoid suffering the dreaded “fail-yuh to communicate,” as the prison captain in “Cool Hand Luke” so famously drawled? Karen Friedman, the author of Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners, has some suggestions.

A former television news reporter and anchorwoman for 20 years, Friedman is the owner of Karen Friedman Enterprises Inc. (, a Pennsylvania-based communications-consulting firm. As such, she’s seen plenty of examples of poor communication and the resulting fallout, which can range from higher rates of costly employee turnover, reduced productivity and low morale to increased employee stress and absenteeism and more frequent project failures and budget overruns.

“In all my years as a television reporter and now as a communications coach, I’ve realized that people have a tendency to slip into ‘blah, blah, blah’ mode,” she says. “They’re smart people and have something valuable to say, but they don’t know how to say it in a way that engages their audience. In the title of my book, I don’t really mean that people should just shut up, but instead should think carefully about what to say and how to say it in a meaningful way.”

No jargon

One of the biggest communication problems in the business world could be rightly called speaking in tongues. Any citizen who’s heard a data- and jargon-filled public presentation about a new sewer or water project is no doubt painfully aware of this all-too-common syndrome.

“In the business world, people are very close to their subjects,” Friedman explains. “And if you take a researcher or an engineer – very smart people who deal with very detailed and data-heavy information – it’s difficult for them to explain a complicated subject in ways people will understand. They eat, sleep and breathe it, so it makes perfect sense to them, but it sounds absolutely foreign to someone else.

“To effectively communicate, you must sit in the seat of the person to whom you’re talking – think about what they would care about,” she emphasizes. “Do they need all this information I’m giving them? Chances are the answer is no. Poor communicators tend to deliver too much information and fail to make it pertinent to the listener. You need to first deliver a headline to gain their attention, then get to the point. People have short attention spans.”

Presenters at such forums often are fearful of “dumbing down” their presentations. But she asserts that it’s far better to present things simply and clearly to the public. If not, you run the risk that any reporters who are present will deliver the message to the public incorrectly and communicate something you never intended.

Less is more

“People don’t want a data dump – a litany of everything you know,” she adds. “They only want to know what’s in it for them and what you want them to do with the information. It’s best to condense information and pick two or three key points that are most important to the listener. Then use real-life examples that create an even better understanding.”

Here are some other communication pointers from Friedman that are worth following no matter what the setting, from public presentations to one-on-one meetings:

  • Start with the end in mind. Think about what the real message is – what key thought you want your audience to take away or what outcome you desire.
  • If you use a PowerPoint-type slide presentation, don’t make the slides a detailed script from which to read verbatim; it will bog down your presentation because people will read the slides instead of listening to you. “You should never follow the slide, each slide should follow you – reinforce what you say,” Friedman says.
  • Make an emotional connection. Don’t constantly straighten your hair or look at a clock or mess with a smartphone. Instead, be present. “If you want to create a presence, be present,” she suggests. “Look people in the eyes and make them feel valued. Communication isn’t about talking; it’s about connecting.”
  • Talk with oomph. Don’t speak in a monotone voice; instead, talk with up-and-down voice fluctuations, just as you would in a normal conversation. “Speak with energy and project,” she advises. “Even if you’re just talking to your peers, you still should be ‘on’ and trying to make a point. If you want other people to be excited, you have to be excited too.”
  • Use strong words. Instead of peppering a conversation/presentation with words like “I think” and “maybe,” use “I believe” and “Here are the facts.”
  • Give listeners a chance to digest information. Pause periodically and let them “come up for air,” Friedman says.
  • Always drive home your main message or messages again at the end of a conversation or presentation. Reinforcing the message is key.

More important than ever

Effective communication is even more difficult these days because it’s harder and harder to rise above the din of all the communication technology that surrounds us, especially ever-present social media. “Our attention spans are dwindling and we’re becoming more impatient as a society,” Friedman says. “Thanks to all the communication vehicles around us, we’ve come to expect everything instantly. We have access to information 24/7. That makes it even more important to cut to the chase and be concise.”

Those who don’t will run the risk of sounding like this famous quote, usually attributed to the late Robert J. McCloskey, a former diplomat and U.S. Department of State spokesman, who reportedly uttered it at a press briefing during the Vietnam War: “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

Even after several readings, it’s difficult to decipher the meaning. But one thing is crystal clear: George Bernard Shaw had it right.


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