Backpacker’s guide Education

Clarity can be elusive

It is easy to express one thing but could mean something else, thus confusing the listener or reader. How can we become more coherent?

How often do we come out of a lecture, wondering, “What was that all about?” And there are times when we have to ask for something to be repeated, maybe more than once, and are still left mystified.

On the other hand, it also happens that you read or listen to something, and you get the sense right away — it is as if the words do not stand between you and the meaning.

It could also be the other way around, that you are the one speaking — or writing — and you have a feeling that you are able to say exactly what you mean, and at other times, you feel that the words are just not coming out right.

Clarity is something we all struggle with, both in speech and writing. At times even the simplest idea, even what you think is a straightforward request or response, is very difficult to articulate — and you can see that people do not understand. Being clear is not just about having command over language, although having a good stock of words and an understanding of grammar is a big advantage.

Being coherent

How does one achieve clarity in expression? To start with, we need to be able to think clearly and know the purpose of our speech (or writing). Do we wish to ask a question, seek or give information, or offer an opinion or comment? Each of these demands a different structure, and it should be apparent to the listener (or reader) what we are doing with our words. Usually thinking a little before speaking and playing with the words in our head can help you bring it out better. Cultivating the habit of thinking through your sentence or question can be very useful; you will find that you avoid the several hems and haws that can distract from what you are actually saying. Make it clear from the beginning whether you are asking a question or offering a comment. This helps people prepare their minds to receive information or think about a possible answer.

Second, think about who you are addressing your communication to. This will help you use words that may not be unfamiliar to them, as well as using a tone that is appropriate (formal, casual, respectful, friendly, serious). Often people do not discern the meaning because the tone (if inappropriate) is unexpected, and therefore distracting.

Third, try to be brief. If your idea is clear, it will not take too many words to express it. The advertising wizard David Ogilvy is supposed to have said that if your idea cannot be written on the back of a visiting card, then it is not an idea. You can go into detail if people request you to, and they will definitely ask follow-up questions if they are able to understand what you are saying.

Clarity in writing and speech presents different challenges, and it is important to be aware of them. When you speak, you may have the opportunity to explain yourself once you see people do not understand. But when you write, you cannot do that, so it is even more important to check that you are as clear as you can be — your writing should be impossible to misunderstand.

Ultimately, clarity is about simplicity of expression, and sensitivity to the listener’s or reader’s expectations and needs.

The writer teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus.

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Printable version | Jul 12, 2020 12:47:33 AM |

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