Three Steps for Communicating Better, According to Neuroscience

An illustration of a businessman and woman have troubles with understanding each other
Most business communications are long-winded, unclear, and ineffective — but they don’t have to be. Here’s how to make them better.

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Ineffective communication can literally be a life-or-death matter. Take this warning label on a portable generator mentioned in psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, “The Sense of Style”: “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 has probably saved lives. And while the stakes aren’t usually as high when it comes to office communication, we’ve all seen teams spend hours discussing issues that could’ve been resolved in minutes. Moreover, a recent survey found ineffective communication negatively impacted productivity, job satisfaction, and stress levels for more than 40% of respondents.

When people don’t communicate well, they don’t say what they mean, and they misunderstand each other’s intentions. 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.

Be succinct

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 tend to meander.

Here’s the issue: 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 new feature for a software product may say, “As the manager of this group of individuals, I’d 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’ll 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 speak, pause and think about what you want to say. Then, say it in as few words as necessary.

Be specific

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.” But for someone who wasn’t there, those words are vague and insufficient to help them visualize the meal. 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 details to paint a picture in the listener’s mind. For example, 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 20% by year’s end, which would make us the market leader.”

Supply relevant information and use concrete, unambiguous words to create a shared understanding so the other person’s mental image matches your own.

Be generous

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 taking an extra moment to look over the report you just wrote to ensure none of your manager’s writing pet peeves are present or answering questions about a new project so 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 comes across clearly and efficiently.

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