YOU spend most of your time at work communicating with others. Reading and replying to e-mail, talking on the phone and having face-to-face conversations take up most of your workday.

With all the practice we get communicating with others, we should all be masters of communication. But the truth is, we are not! We can all stand to improve our communication ability.

Whether you are speaking or writing, always communicate to express, not to impress. If your

audience does not understand your message, you have failed to communicate.

Know your audience and choose your words accordingly. If you use big or obscure words and convoluted sentences, you may convey an attitude of intellectual superiority, but your audience might not understand you.

Always bear in mind the ABCs of effective communication: active voice, brevity and clarity.

Active voice

The words you choose can energise your audience or put them to sleep. They can make you sound confident or confused, professional or incompetent, down-to-earth or pompous.

The active voice sounds strong, confident and interesting. It uses more verbs (action words) and fewer nouns (things) than the passive voice. Verbs make your message more compelling. People respond more favourably to the active voice.

The passive voice, on the other hand, sounds weak and uncertain. It uses plenty of weak nouns instead of more powerful verbs. A letter or speech with a lot of these phrases strung together will put your audience to sleep.

For example, instead of saying “See to it that John is told”, say “Tell John”.

Rather than saying “The committee’s recommendation of the implementation of an alternative methodology on an experimental basis has been brought to my attention”, say “I understand the committee recommends we try something new”.

While the active voice is generally preferred, there may be occasions when you will want to use the passive voice.

You can use the passive approach to deliberately weaken a statement, as when giving criticism. “I trust the problem will be resolved” is not as intimidating as “Make sure you solve the problem”.

You may also use the passive voice to avoid calling attention to yourself. “The cheque is in the mail” suggests that the cheque somehow mailed itself; it isn’t your fault the person asking you for payment has not received it yet!

Similarly, you might say “There was a miscommunication” rather than “I misunderstood the instructions” to deflect some of the blame.

Avoid the use of the passive voice in the writing of your letters and in the uttering of your spoken messages of communication. (See how odd that sounds?)

Better yet, use the active voice when writing or speaking.

Brevity

Use short, sharp sentences. Avoid unnecessary words and redundancy. For example, you need not say “the basic fundamentals”, as all fundamentals are basic. Just say “the basics” or “the fundamentals”.

Don’t say “cease and desist” when you mean “stop”.

Instead of saying “I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation”, just say “Thank you”.

Few people in business have time for long messages. They appreciate when you get to the point. Be brief.

Clarity

Have you ever noticed how confusing and intimidating most legal and technical documents are?

As a law student, I was taught a newfangled approach to legal writing. It was part of the “plain English” movement.

The idea was to make legalese a thing of the past so that legal documents could be understood by laypersons.

When I joined a law firm and began drafting legal documents in plain English, my boss would review them and translate everything back into legalese!

It isn’t just lawyers, doctors and engineers who use 50-cent words when 10-cent words will do.

Many other people think they sound more intelligent, sophisticated or persuasive when they jazz up their writing or conversation with big words and legalistic phrases.

But adding a few words such as wherefore, inasmuch, aforementioned and herein will not make the content of your message any more impressive.

Not everyone knows what “excessive levels of ambient sound” means. But everyone understands “noisy”.

Communication is all about understanding.

Do you want to impress your audience with fancy-sounding words?

Or do you want them to listen to you attentively, understand clearly and respond favourably to your message?

Communicate to express, not to impress. Remember the ABCs of effective communication. Use the active voice. Be brief. And be clear.