Stories are transformative. They’re powerful tools for accomplishing our objectives. Studies have shown that stories are more memorable than bullet points in communicating ideas. However, a story in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing. In fact, there’s another word for it — a lie. Sadly, because of the power of story, tall tales often travel as effectively as their sincere siblings.
In a cruel bit of irony, some of the lies that remain undetected are about the art and science of communication itself. Nothing is more important in the world of work than how we communicate with others. It’s a skill set that employers cite as essential. It’s a skill set business students wish they had more of. It’s a skill set that can help us enhance almost every other aspect of our work. And it’s also a skill set that we lie to ourselves about constantly.
Because most of us know these are critical skills, many work hard to level up their professional writing and presenting. Pervasive lies can get in the way and, perhaps more dangerously, lead us in the wrong direction. Let’s explore some of the common lies about business communication and shed some light on a better path forward.
LIE: More Is Better
Whether it’s an email that’s an intimidating, unreadable wall of text or a slide deck that’s too long and dense, perhaps the biggest lie in the world of professional communication is that more is better. More text. More information. More data. More isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more.
In an era where we are busier than ever, when we are inundated with messages that we’re reading predominately on small, glass screens, we owe it to our audience to be clear and concise. To send emails that are upfront and to give presentations that make their point but don’t take any longer than they have to.
Sounds simple enough. So how does the more-is-better mentality keep its stranglehold? Fear. Extra words, extra slides, and extra information pads our content. It keeps us from being objectionable. It keeps us from getting in trouble. It also keeps us from making our point.
Overcome this lie by taking the extra time to edit. If your communications are clear and concise, they’ll stand out in our distracted, digital world.
LIE: Just Wing It
One of the arguments against taking time to edit is our next lie: winging it is best. Countless fictional depictions in TV and film show the hero with an important speech to give deciding at the last minute that they will step forward and simply wing it. We love the story that we were told about Abraham Lincoln writing the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope as he traveled to the event. The problem? This too is a lie.
As evidenced in recovered drafts, Lincoln refined his speech in the weeks and days leading up to the event. Stories like these support our misuse of today’s technology. When most of us learn about a presentation we have to give, we fire up PowerPoint and start combining slides and cramming content. Actually, the first thing we do is procrastinate. Because of our reliance on PowerPoint, we tell ourselves that the task is easier than it really is. That we can put off working on our presentation and focus on “more important” items on our to do list.
Overcome this lie by doing what Lincoln and other great communicators actually do. Before you open your presentation software and start designing slides, take the time to outline and structure the story you want to tell. Speaking of story …
LIE: Data Trumps Story
Iowa-born engineer, statistician, professor, author, and management consultant W. Edwards Deming famously quipped, “In God we trust, all others must bring data.” In general, it’s my policy to agree with my fellow Midwesterners. However, I have to break with Deming as we come full circle to the power of story.
Too often we spend too much time making our case with numbers and stats alone. Data informs but story sells. Don’t get me wrong, analytical information is a key element but, in the end, it’s just an element in a larger story. Numbers on their own are data points that get lost in constellations of clutter between sender and receiver. Give data context by making it part of a larger story. Stories stand out. Stories change minds. Stories inspire action.
Overcome this lie by taking the time to map out the story arc of your next presentation. Where is your audience now? What do they need to know? What do they need to do?
Lies like these are proof positive of the power of story — even stories that aren’t true. But when you know the truth — that stories are powerful, preparation is necessary, and more isn’t better — you’ll be able to write a better story of your own with each email you send and each presentation you give.