FINESSE is a linear communication approach that places the burden of an effective message on the sender, not the receiver. Most technically trained professionals do a below-average job of ensuring that their message is clear. This tip provides one technique for improving the message by reducing the noise.
Most technically trained professionals simply do a spell check and grammar check of their Word documents. Some do a similar spelling and grammar check of their Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. Few technical professionals fully leverage the editing tools or consistently apply the techniques to Google, Adobe, or social media applications.
The good news is that the tools are similar across all platforms. Our biggest challenges are awareness, creating a practical methodology, and consistently applying it.
Get Your Method Established Using Word
In Microsoft Word, we are all aware of the Review | Editor sequence that allows us to check our spelling and grammar. Make sure you use the full Editor toolbar (usually on the far left of the Review menu bar) and make the recommended refinements for clarity, conciseness, punctuation, and vocabulary.
Make the spelling and grammar changes because Microsoft is rarely wrong. I recommend making all of the refinement changes too. These are suggestions but Microsoft is usually correct here too.
Remember that a disagreement between you and Microsoft is not really the point. The point is what makes the communication most clear for the receiver. Microsoft has the edge when it comes to the number of people who created the tool and the range of audiences that were used in the tool's development.
The number of words can be viewed under Review | Word Count (normally just to the right of the Editor button) or can be seen continually on the bottom left of your Word screen when a document is open.
Documents that are between 500 and 1000 words are universally considered scannable. This is a normal range that I prefer to use for executive summaries, brief articles with a couple of key messages, and most blog posts.
Between 1500 and 2000 words, it is certainly time to take a look at the structure. Some key questions to ask include
Am I trying to make too many points?
Am I using too many examples?
Do I need a main body and an executive summary?
I do not worry about reading time as long as I am under 1500 words. There are many applications and algorithms that estimate reading time, and most will come up in the range of 1 minute for 400 to 500 words and something closer to 4 or 5 minutes in the 1500 to 2000 words range.
Word Count and Spoken Words
Great communicators focus on the correlation of word count to speaking time. This is probably the most important aspect of writing your remarks before you make an oral presentation, regardless of how good of a natural speaker you happen to be.
My rule-of-thumb is 1200 words correlates to 10 minutes of speaking time.
This heuristic means that if I give a summary to a board or commission, I will try to limit my remarks to 10 minutes or 1200 words of text. For a 30-minute presentation at a conference, I will target 2500 words of text because I want to talk for no more than 20 minutes and allow for 10 minutes of questions.
For questions (of all types and all forums), I target between 150 and 250 words (or 1 to 2 minutes). It is amazing how effective your answers to questions are with this approach. And with practice, you will develop an internal clock for knowing whether your answer is starting to get too long.
Readability and Insights
The word count discussion is also related to readability. In Word, go to the Insights button located in the Editor summary. Here you will find things like the number of words per sentence, sentences per paragraph, Flesch–Kincaid (F–K) reading grade level, and Flesch readability.
Reducing the noise now becomes an integrated exercise. Target keeping your words per paragraph in the 2 to 3 range and under 20 words per sentence. Flesch readability of 50 is a good target, but 35 is not a bad score for technical presentations with a highly educated audience. A reading grade level of 8 is about right for most presentations with technical information.
I use the number of syllables per word as the most effective parameter for pulling the readability insights into a targeted range. You can calculate the number of syllables per word from the Flesch readability score, but you will need a different application to see this parameter directly. My target is 80 percent of the words having less than three syllables.
Applying It with FINESSE
I am over 800 words now, so it is time to wrap it up. The burden of effective communication is on the sender, not the receiver. The good news for technically trained professionals is that there are many default tools for reducing the noise in your reports and verbal presentations.
These are a few ways I use for ensuring my message is clear. Hopefully, it will inspire you to develop your own or modify your current approach. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
The N in FINESSE stands for Noise reduction.
Founded by JD Solomon, Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. The community's 750 Club shares special tips and pointers associated with each bone of the FINESSE fishbone (cause and effect) diagram. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.