Three Steps for Communicating Better, According to Neuroscience
In his book “A Sense of Style,” psychologist Steven Pinker mentions a warning label on a portable generator that read: “Mild exposure to CO can result in accumulated damage over time. Extreme exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms.” For anyone who may not know that “CO” is the chemical formula for carbon monoxide — a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas — the warning is vague, confusing, and potentially lethal.
A better version appears on a more recent model: “Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES. Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide. This is a poison you cannot see or smell.”
By being easier to understand, the new label probably has saved lives. And while the stakes aren’t quite as high when it comes to communication among office workers, anyone who’s spent time in the world of work has seen teams spend hours discussing issues that could’ve been resolved in minutes.
That’s what happens when people don’t communicate well: They don’t say what they mean, they misunderstand each other’s intentions, and time is wasted in conversations that are long, vague, and confusing.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to speak with intent, or as NLI co-founder David Rock puts it, be SSG: succinct, specific, and generous.
Being succinct means using as few words as possible to get your message across. One of the biggest problems with workplace communication is taking longer than necessary to convey your ideas. Whether speaking or writing, we have a tendency to meander.
But here’s the problem: Cognitive capacity is limited. Our ability to process information is finite, and our working memory can hold only a few items at a time. When your sentences are bogged down with unnecessary verbiage, you increase the other person’s cognitive load, and your message becomes more difficult to grasp. To respect the limits of working memory, only offer essential information. It may seem counterintuitive, but using fewer words makes your ideas easier to understand.
For example, a manager discussing a crucial new feature for a software product could say something like, “As the manager of this group of individuals, I would like to take this opportunity to provide some much-needed guidance as we prepare to embark on our latest project. As you all are no doubt already aware, this quarter we will be taking on the challenge of developing a new and groundbreaking feature for our software product.”
Or, the manager could say, “This quarter, we’re developing a groundbreaking new feature.”
The best way to be more succinct is to slow down. Before you start speaking, pause and think about what you want to say. Then, say it in as few words as necessary.
Think about an exceptional meal you’ve had. If you were telling a friend about it, you could describe the meal as “great” or “amazing” and feel like those words are accurate. But for someone who wasn’t there, those words are vague. After all, a “great” restaurant with “amazing” food could refer to a grungy lunch counter serving greasy slabs of slow-cooked brisket on sheets of butcher paper or it could refer to a seaside Michelin-starred terrace serving a nine-course tasting menu of yuzu-glazed beet tartare, seared sea scallops, and sunchoke salad with black truffle emulsion. Just because you know what you have in mind doesn’t mean the listener does.
Being specific means being direct and explicit and using detail to paint a picture in your listener’s mind. At work, this could mean instead of saying an undertaking is “of immense importance to our organization and has potential to maximize our long-term success,” you could say, “we predict this new feature will increase sales by 20% by year’s end, which would make us the market leader.”
Being specific means supplying relevant information and using concrete, unambiguous words to create a shared understanding so the other person’s mental image matches your own.
Being generous means framing your communication in a way that’s easy to understand so listeners or readers don’t have to work so hard. Communication isn’t just about information; it’s also about empathy — thinking about the other person’s mind and being intentional about connecting new ideas to their existing understanding. This could mean ensuring you take an extra moment to look over a report to ensure none of your manager’s writing pet peeves are present or ensuring you answer questions about a new project so that people can dive in with the right context.
Workplace conversations can be a minefield, and even slight misunderstandings can make employees feel threatened. So next time you’re having a conversation at work, pause to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it — taking care to be succinct, specific, and generous so your message is understood.