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What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

January 2, 2012

Movie poster Cool Hand LukeThe title of this post is one of the best known movie quotes of all time.  It is, of course, a line from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. It’s spoken at different points in the movie, the first time by Paul Newman.

I was reminded of that line while reading this post on the Harvard Business Review blog:  I Don’t Understand What Anyone Is Saying Anymore by Dan Palotta.

Dan talks about an ‘epidemic’ of communications failures, identifying five types or causes.  While I recommend the entire post, I was especially struck by one item.  That one was “Abstractionitis” — failing to make the language specific and concrete makes you come across as vague.  Being vague is a recipe for failing to get your message across, a failure to make an impact.

So if abstract is bad, what’s good?  Here are some things I think you should consider:

Tell stories.
A story is concrete and the audience can relate to it.  The power of story is real.

Use number-driven examples.
Find a relevant, easily-displayed example and show it.  Even better, if your point can be made with a numeric data slide do so, just remember the purpose of the slide isn’t just to show  the numbers, it’s about the meaning of the numbers.

Use concrete, not abstract language.
Listen carefully to the language you use in your presentation.  Watch the pronouns:  “they” who?!  Watch for the overused and vague descriptors: just how is it ‘innovative’?!  “Most people” is vague, “70% of our sample” is not.

If you want your audience to understand and remember your presentation–if you want to have an impact–you need to be clear and simple, concrete language is a way to get there. Let’s change the quote to:

What we have here is a really successful communication!

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