Communicating with Clarity

present with people speak with people May 13, 2024




I was standing on the side of my friend’s driveway while he was taking apart my motorcycle in order to make some repairs. As he lay on his back, he turned to me and said, “Hey Matt, can you hand me that thing for this?”

He pointed vaguely to a pile of “things” while holding up a “this” that was cylindrical in shape. 

I’m not very handy. I grabbed a “thing” that seemed to possibly be a companion to the “this” he was holding. I was wrong. He said, “No, the other thing.” I grabbed another thing. Wrong again. My friend got up from the ground and got the proper thing himself.

I assumed I was picking the right thing because it seemed to be the right shape. I felt bad that my ignorance about tool-things made him get up and expend that extra effort and time while trying to help me fix something on my motorcycle.

Do you know that cliché about assumptions? The one that says something about making a donkey out of you and me?

Consider my friend and I donkeys. If you don’t get the joke, look up “donkey” on and spell the word assume out loud.

Assumptions don’t just make us out as blockheads, they cause problems. Big problems.

A 2011 report calculated that employee misunderstanding in 400 large companies cost an estimated $37 billion per year. That’s $62.4 million per company per year. That’s a loss of more than the entire 2024 payroll for the Oakland Athletics major league baseball team every year.

Deep knowledge of your audience may position you in such a way where some amount of assumed pre-knowledge may exist, but I always find it safer to communicate from an assumption that my audience knows nothing.

Should your colleagues come into meetings with some baseline of preexisting knowledge? Sure, they should. Should the volunteer leaders you’re communicating with have a basic understanding of your mission, vision, and values? Yeah. Totally they should.

Can you guarantee that they do? Nope.




When someone you are communicating with makes an assumption, whether they are correct or not, it is your problem. The burden of clarity lies completely on the communicator. 

To communicate clearly, be specific, be simple, and be sure.

Be Specific.

The best way to get clarity in communication is to communicate with specificity. Had my motorcycle repairman friend told me to get the oil filter wrench with the red handle and the black strap, I probably would’ve nailed it on the first try, saving us time and effort.

In the workplace, I try not to say, “I’ll do that as soon as possible,” or ask someone to complete something, “as soon as possible.” What does as soon as possible mean? What if I need something by Friday but my colleague’s priorities are such that “as soon as possible” is early next week? I need to be specific about my timeline so that my colleague can readjust their priorities or counter in a way that manages my expectations.

When I’m working with volunteers, I want them to know exactly how their contribution is making an impact. A vague vision like, “What you’re doing is changing our community,” isn’t enough for a volunteer to grasp onto for a long-term commitment. Communicate with clarity about the impact their service is making. Tell them, “Every time you set up a chair for these events, you create a welcoming space where people are comfortable and feel cared for. That feeling will help them to be less defensive and more open to the opportunities we are presenting them.” Add in your own specifics about the opportunities and nature of their service and you’ll find your volunteers celebrating when they see their effort lead to the results you foresaw. Celebration leads to commitment. 

Be Simple.

Forrest Gump famously said, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” Everyone you communicate with should be treated like Forrest Gump. They may know one or two things that created the space for you to be communicating with them at all, but don’t assume they know anything else.

Like I said before, I’m not handy. I don’t own many tools. I am pretty adept at riding a motorcycle, but pretty inept at addressing mechanical issues that may arise. When my friend held up the “this” he needed a “thing” for, he assumed I knew what the “this” was. I did not. I still don’t, hence referring to it as a “this.”

Simplicity falls apart when people view communication as an opportunity to flaunt their vocabulary. I’ll admit that this is a problem for me. I’m not sure how smart I am, but I know I have a pretty large vocabulary. When you utilize your astronomically immense lexicon, you potentially enjoin your audience to posit what your locution denotes.

We already talked about how costly assumptions are. The Literacy Project says the average American reads at the 7th to 8th grade level. Would the words and phrases you’re using be intelligible by a 12 to 14 year old? Is the jargon you insert into your communication fully understood by your audience?

I once found myself in a heated debate about the phrase “meeting after the meeting.” I was brought up to understand that a “meeting after the meeting” has a very negative connotation and is when people meet to discuss a prior meeting usually because they disagree about the meeting or possibly even to undermine a decision. Some of my colleagues understood the phrase “meeting after the meeting” to have a positive connotation where people meet after a meeting to gain additional clarity and divide tasks.

I was SUPER offended that my colleagues were advocating for “meetings after the meeting,” but I didn’t understand how they were understanding the jargon. Jargon seems like a way to create shorthand and simplicity in a group, but it will make anyone who doesn’t grasp it an immediate outsider with the burden of making an assumption about its meaning.

Which brings us to being sure.

Be Sure

The best way to prevent miscommunication and assumption is to be sure everything was understood. Employ follow up conversations and rapid feedback loops. Literally ask your audience what they understood from what you communicated. If you are rolling something out broadly, establish a network that can do follow up conversations and rapid feedback loops on your behalf. 

Especially in top-level leadership, you may be communicating to a significant number of people and individualized follow-up would be impossible if you did it yourself. If something is being communicated at that scale, don’t do it extemporaneously. Create a communication plan. Develop a network of people who you can invest individualized time in to create an assurance that what you are communicating is understood. Then, empower and expect those people to follow up with individuals who make up the larger group.

I have had bosses who get into large meetings very excited about something and cast a huge vision without doing any preparatory work to ensure the follow-up questions that will inevitably come have answers. This creates a confusing mess of “how,” “what,” and “why” questions because the team may not have been given enough specificity or simplicity to understand how they will be impacted. 

It's okay not to have detailed answers to all the “how,” “what,” and “why” questions, but to ignore their inevitability can be really demoralizing. Maybe one of these days, I’ll write a whole article about internal communication plans.

When it comes to individual or small group communication, it’s impossible to overstate the effectiveness of simply asking your audience what they heard and understood. You can address assumptions or misunderstandings immediately then send a follow up message to confirm everything that was communicated and what the agreed upon next steps are.

Positive Side Effects

Clear communication has positive side effects other than mitigating concerns caused by people making assumptions. If you, as the communicator, are taking the time to ensure you are specific, simple, and sure in your communication, you will reap cognitive benefits.

To be a specific, simple, and sure communicator, you have to think. Our brains aren’t so different from our muscles. If we work them, they get stronger.

Your quest for specificity, simplicity, and sureness will have you thinking more deeply and more holistically about not just what you are communicating but how you are communicating. This will naturally lead to a greater understanding of the topic and some extra calories burned in your cerebral cortex.

The burden of clarity in communication rests entirely on the communicator because while in some cases the audience should know a thing or two, it is nearly impossible to know with absolute certainty that they do. So be specific, be simple, and be sure.

And in conclusion, don’t ask me to help when you are doing mechanical repairs. I’ll probably waste your time.


By Matt Murphy, MBA - COO, Stadia

Matt leads a team of entirely remote staff, overseeing strategic, international operations. In his free time, he enjoys mentoring leaders, cheering for the Orioles, and playing bass.