Brian Krogh

What To Do When What is Clear to You is Unclear to Others

What is clear today becomes cloudy over time.

Here's what to do, when you are losing ground in the battle for clarity.

Once I facilitated 20+ half-day sessions for a fast-growing biotech.

The sessions were to help employees internalize the company's values.One of those values is "Our Platform is Paramount" (not really, but somewhat similar).

It's a great value.

The challenge is the term "platform" is cloudy.

It's not to the people who wrote it. Nor to the original research and development team.

To them, the meaning of "platform" is crystal clear.

"Platform" refers to their gene editing technology (again, I've changed this slightly from reality, but stick with me).

Over time the company grew, added thousands of employees and created new functions.

"Platform" became cloudy.

One day my session was 80% finance. I said, "What's the platform?" Without hesitation, they said, "SAP."

Another day I held a session with mostly IT staff. "What's the platform?" "The cloud," they responded.

As scientists were added to the staff, I observed the meaning of "platform" became cloudy among researchers too.

When I asked, "What is the platform?" Scientists referred to their work on specific diseases rather than the company's proprietary technology.

The long-term employees in the sessions were shocked.

But there's nothing unusual here.

What is clear one day becomes cloudy the next.

When you experience this reality, do these three things:

1. Take responsibility for clarity.

It's easy to point the finger at the listener - "How could they possibly misunderstand?"

Great communicators look in the mirror and think about how they can rephrase for clarity.

2. Ask questions before you defend.

When what is clear to you becomes cloudy, your instinct is to defend your word choice.

A moment like this is an opportunity for you to grow as a communicator.

Instead of defending, ask your listeners a genuinely curious question - "Interesting, when we wrote "platform" the term referred to our gene editing technology.  What has changed that causes employees to answer differently?"

The answers are invaluable to you as a communicator.

3. Take a step toward specificity.

The value could be written, "Our gene editing technology is paramount." Less catchy, but far clearer.

Making complex ideas clear is not easy. It's a fight.

When you're losing ground, take responsibility, ask questions, and move toward specificity.

You'll find the cloudy skies open up and clarity shines down.


For the communication nerds among us . . .

What I discuss in this post is how to come down the "ladder of abstraction" a term coined by the linguist Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa in “Language in Thought and Action”, published in 1939.

A technical, and helpful book.

Not sure how to talk to your team about presenting your company's most important information?

I would love to meet you and provide you with some value whether or not we work together long term. Let’s put something on the calendar.