How to Be A Concise Communicator
When I think about how to be concise in communication, my mind flashes to a college writing professor saying, "The key to great communication in writing is to be concise and precise." She went on to say that over explaining doesn’t do anything other than cloud the meaning of a message.
During my first year of “real-world” work experience, I quickly learned that wordiness and over-explaining aren’t found only in academic writing or experienced only by college students — and they’re not limited to the written word.
I remember being surprised, however, by my manager’s brief, to-the-point communication style. She said what she meant — no frills or fillers — and forget exclamation points. But I always understood what she was asking of me, and there were never doubts about what her expectations were. I made it my goal to communicate more like her and less like the others.
Whether you're gathering feedback on an assignment, kicking off a new project, or closing a sale, saying what you want to say in fewer words — without losing any meaning — is an essential communication skill.
Here’s what concise communication is, why it’s crucial in your workplace, and how to be concise in your everyday communication.
What is conciseness?
Conciseness, or concision, means conveying your message in as few words as possible without losing any meaning. Concise communication eliminates doubt or confusion by providing specificity, giving your message room to breathe without obscure language, excess words, or confusing, run-on sentences.
Being concise doesn’t mean diluting your message’s meeting or compromising on detail. Conciseness is a practice of determining what information should be shared, how it should be shared, and when it should be shared.
Keep in mind that being a concise communicator means choosing the right words, not just choosing fewer words. Select words that convey your message in the clearest way possible.
Why it’s hard to be concise
Communication is a social survival skill, but our desire to connect, be understood, and to understand can result in over-indexing on this vital human adaptation — forgoing being concise. Rambling, going on tangents, and over-explaining are all non-concise ways of communicating. Some of the causes behind these communication behaviors include:
A lack of preparedness or self-confidence. We constantly gauge how what we say is received in a conversation because we care what people think. Perception that someone is losing interest or confused causes doubt to creep in, resulting in repeating or circling around your point. Instead of belaboring the point, stop and ask if what you have said is understood before rehashing what’s already been said.
A tendency to people-please out of a fear of rejection. Being agreeable and helping others is a great way to cultivate rapport and build relationships. But putting aside your own needs and work to always say yes is a far cry from offering to take on an extra task occasionally for a friend or colleague.
Feelings of intimidation or enthusiasm. Anxiety and excitement may seem like dichotomous feelings, but both evoke the same physiological nervous system responses, known as aroused emotions. In a conversation, feeling intimidated or positively stimulated can engender communication responses that are counterproductive to being concise (think about how people can stammer and repeat themselves when meeting a celebrity, or when called on by a manager or executive).
With people spending anywhere from 50% to 80% of their workday communicating, it’s all the more important to know how to be concise and as clear as possible.
Why does concision matter?
Everyone communicates differently. Navigating different communication styles in the workplace can be tricky, especially when client relationships, revenue, and company growth are on the line.
What's more, with more people working remotely than ever before, it's critical to be mindful of how you communicate on asynchronous channels like Slack, email, and video.
Let's discuss two of the biggest ways concise communication impacts the workplace.
1. Being concise eliminates communication roadblocks.
Conciseness forces you to break down a message in a way that's easy to understand, distilling only what you need and nothing you don’t. If a statement is concise, there will be no second-guessing what the message means.
Take onboarding a new employee, for example. It's a big job that involves conveying lots of information in a short amount of time, which can be overwhelming for both the new employee and the team responsible for the onboarding process.
By including only the most essential details, effective communication simplifies components of the onboarding process like reviewing company policies, human resources to-dos, and team introductions.
In addition to concise writing and speaking, visuals are a crucial component of concise communication. They provide additional context in a way that doesn't overwhelm or take away from the main message. Video messaging helps bring your message to life in a way that strictly verbal or written communication can't always do.
2. Concise communication saves time.
Because conciseness eliminates redundant or irrelevant details, it's easier to take action more quickly. Rather than reading through a massive email or watching a 10-minute feedback video, you have the information you need to take the next step in plain sight.
Conciseness is also valuable when preparing for meetings or presentations. Providing attendees or your team with the necessary details they need means less time figuring out the meeting's purpose and more time focusing on the actual meeting itself.
While it can take more time for you to make the effort, knowing how to be concise respects your recipients' time, and saves you from potential miscommunication, which saves everyone time in the long run.
6 ways to communicate more concisely
The average employee receives 304 emails each week and checks their email 36 times per hour. With people communicating more than ever (and across multiple platforms), it's essential to learn how to be as concise as possible.
Being concise in the workplace can mean the difference between a project going off without a hitch and it bottlenecking — or worse, failing.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to prevent this from happening:
1. Break down complex messages into clear, understandable terms.
Our brains have immense storage capacity — around 2.5 petabytes, or a million gigabytes in computing terms — yet studies show when we are exposed to large amounts of information than we think we can remember, we selectively try to limit what we retain. Sharing too much information risks overwhelming your audience.
2. Use active voice over passive voice.
Passive voice requires adding more words, clouding your message, while active voice is more direct. Consider how concise, and more clear, this sentence is with active voice in contrast to the passive voice version:
Active voice: “In 1665, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer creates Girl with a Pearling Earring.”
Passive voice: “The artwork, Girl with a Pearling Earring, was produced in the 17th century by a Dutch painter named Johannes Vermeer.”
3. Use as few words as possible.
Moz’s Ronell Smith recommends determining the main point you want to stick with your audience. Create an outline that highlights three supporting facts, sit with your argument a few days, and refine to address gaps and remove repetitions.
One of the best ways to become a concise communicator is by preparing. Preparation allows time for your thoughts to develop and helps you make sense of them.
If you don't prepare — and you know you produce your best work when you do — the more likely you are to share half-baked ideas, which can lead to rambling or confusion. After all, if you don't understand your ideas, how can you expect others to?
Anne Ricketts, the Founder and Principal of Lighthouse Communications, shares a trusted method for conciseness: the PREP method.
The PREP method boils down to this simple idea: If you start with your point, listeners don’t have to work so hard to understand what you’re trying to say.
Here’s each step of the PREP method with a real-world example:
Point: I think we should develop a better way to communicate asynchronously as a team.
Reason: The last few projects have had major communication gaps and, because of that, didn’t go smoothly.
Example: We had to push back the launch date by two weeks because important tasks weren’t complete due to communication lags. As a result, our customers were upset.
Point summarized: We should develop a better way to asynchronously communicate as a team to prevent communication gaps, which can lead to failed launches and upset customers.
With this method, your point is defined and you have an example to illustrate the meaning of what you’re saying.
5. Be aware of filler words, and when (and how) you use them.
Filler words are often invoked in lieu of silence when speaking. When you reach a point where you aren’t sure what words to use or how to proceed, a common way to compensate is to use filler words. Examples of filler words include “um,” “like,” “really,” “just” and “yeah.”
There isn’t a hard and fast rule that you can’t use filler words — after all, the average speaker uses five filler words per minute — but when we rely on them, they can distract from the true meaning of a message and be counterproductive to practicing concise communication. A study conducted by the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society found using too many filler words negatively impacts one’s credibility. The researchers compared the success of telemarketers with how many filler words they used during sales calls. The more filler words used, the lower the telemarketer’s success rate.
Other studies show filler words are associated with more thoughtful speech, and the desire to be polite. In this case, a concise response might be interpreted as rude or you’ve made up your mind without consideration of the invitation, question, or ask. A speaker’s use of filler words to soften answers is based on the perception the recipient won’t respond well or the interaction will negatively impact rapport.
If you want to remove filler words as part of your efforts to be more concise, a great way to cut filler words is to ask, "How can I use fewer words and say the same thing?" In written communication, look for common filler words and read the sentence out loud without the word(s). If the sentence still makes sense, keep the words out. In verbal communication, write out your points — perhaps using the PREP method! — and practice articulating your message.
Whether you're writing an email or recording a video message, more often than not, there are opportunities to cut words — but only do so if the situation calls for it. ✂️
6. Distill the main points.
Before you deliver your message, think about the main takeaway of what you're trying to say. What should your audience learn after reading your email or watching your video?
Try writing out bullet points or a concise script if you're recording a video, and make sure you hit each point. Focus on cutting redundant words and phrases and reworking points that are vague or unclear.
Writer Brenda Barbosa takes this practice a step further. She recommends distilling your main ideas and important points into a single sentence, which she describes as “a lighthouse guiding you through fog.” This single sentence will not only help you discover your main point, but it will communicate that point clearly to your listeners.
Another similar method to reduce ideas to key details — you could apply this to the single sentence strategy above — is to whittle your point down to 15 words. Lead with what your audience will get and tailor your 15 words to the bigger picture of your topic. Approach choosing your 15 words by mirroring what your audience cares about, which increases the odds they’ll understand and be motivated to respond in a way that’s congruent with your goals.
Adopt a “less is more” mindset
Effective communication takes practice. Practicing how to be concise is a key ingredient in becoming a better communicator — and ensuring what you communicate is understood and lands the way you intended. At work, being concise creates closer alignment between you and your teammates; modeling how to deliver information sets a standard, increasing the chances nothing falls through the cracks, and cultivates a common ground to approach collaboration.
Concise communication allows you to:
Raise others’ confidence in your work.
Provide more useful information more quickly, reducing or eliminating back-and-forth clarifications.
Deliver your ideas with clarity and precision, which helps your audience focus and maintain attention.
From business writing to public speaking and everything in between, being concise boils down to knowing your message, and communicating it in a way your audience understands.
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Written by Kat Ambrose
Kat is a freelance writer for B2B SaaS companies and eCommerce platforms. Say hi and follow her on Twitter.