Ten Cent Words

My grandfather was a pretty wise man and I was fortunate to spend a great deal of time with him. He owned a corner grocery store for four decades and for several years I would go with him to the produce market at 4:00am every Saturday morning. It was in those early hours of the day when I learned the most. 

 

Of the many things he taught me one still stands out above most others, perhaps it is because at the time I had no idea what he meant. He said that people who want to sound smart will use a ten cent word when a five cent word would be perfectly fine. He also said that people who actually are smart would never waste a ten cent word when a five cent word was enough. 

 

What I came to understand was that smart people don’t try to impress people with big words. They speak as plainly as they can. They also don’t use more words than are needed. 

 

For instance, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered one of history’s most famous and remembered speeches – the Gettysburg Address. It was 273 words. It took 2 minutes to deliver. The main address that day (the one Lincoln followed) was given by Edward Everett (known to be one of the greatest speakers of the time) and lasted 2 hours. His note to Lincoln after the event said…“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

 

Are you a Lincoln or an Everett?  Let me ask that another way; do you use 50 words when 25 would do? Are you using ten cent words when five cent words would convey the identical message?  

 

I once took a presentation class where I was assigned a topic to speak on. I was given 10 minutes for my presentation without much coaching. When I was done I was assigned to speak on the subject a second time. This time I was only allowed 8 minutes and instructed that I could not leave out any of the key points I made in the first presentation. 

 

When I finished the second presentation I was told to make the presentation yet again, with the same key points but to complete it in six minutes. This went on for a few more rounds until I was given just two minutes to make the same presentation with the same key points. 

 

The coaching at this point was rather intense but I managed to pull it off. The point of the exercise was very clear… most of the words I had used in my first presentation added nothing of consequence to the presentation. They may have made me sound smarter (well, maybe) but they did nothing to assist my listeners in understanding my message. In fact, the fewer words I used the easier it was for my audience to understand. 

 

So I ask again, are you a Lincoln or an Everett? It’s takes a lot of practice to make your point while using fewer words, I struggle with that often. (Just ask my wife, kids, dogs, or anyone around me a lot) 


The next time you’re preparing a presentation or even just engaged in a conversation with a friend, consider the simplicity of a five cent word. You can save the ten cent words for when you’re trying to impress yourself. 

Effective Communication Begins with You

I will occasionally have someone ask me about what to do with a person who won’t listen. My answer is always some variation of “I don’t know, I’ve never met someone who wouldn’t listen.” 

 

Their reaction is most often a combination of surprise, disappointment and frustration. They don’t believe I don’t know people who won’t listen. They are disappointed I can’t help and they are frustrated because they think I’m playing games with them.

 

But the truth is I have never met anyone who wouldn’t listen. I have however met some people who I couldn’t motivate to listen. Their failure to listen is on me, not them. I didn’t say anything worth listening to, at least from their point of view. 

 

You may not be willing to accept responsibility for the other person’s desire to listen and that’s fine…so long as you do not consider yourself to be a leader. But if you think of yourself as a leader then you must lead. That includes engaging people in conversation that they find meaningful. So meaningful that it motivates them to listen. 

 

To motivate others to listen you must first stop talking. Put yourself in their position and think about what is important to them. When you do talk make sure you talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Give them a reason to listen. Find a way to make your point while showing them that there is something for them in your point as well. 

 

Yes, that takes effort, and thought, but I’ll tell you without a doubt that talking without thinking is not real communication. It is certainty not effective communication. 

 

Look at the person you’re speaking with. Notice I didn’t say speaking to…I said speaking with. Great communicators don’t talk at or to people. They speak with them. Ditch your phone, notepad, tablet or whatever else may distract you from truly listening to them. That’s vital because the moment they sense a lack of listening on your part is about the same moment they no longer feel compelled to listen to you. 

 

On a side note, some of you will say taking notes is how you “listen.” There are times when taking notes is necessary but those are few and far between. Few people are exceptional at listening while taking notes. You miss what’s being said while you’re writing down what was said earlier. Make some quick notes after the conversation if need be but don’t kid yourself into believing you’re not missing something while you’re writing.

 

Don’t interrupt someone if you want them to listen to you. Interrupting someone mid-sentence is a sure sign that you’re not really listening. Most people, and yes I mean most, most people listen in order to respond and not to understand what is being said. If you’re interrupting people you’re likely in that “most” group. 

 

Linger on the words of the person speaking until you‘re sure what was said and meant. Only then should you begin speaking again.

 

Have you noticed yet that this post on being a better communicator has a strong focus on listening. Don’t make the incredibly common mistake of thinking communicating is only about talking. If you’re not listening intently to what the other person is saying then you may be in a two-sided monologue but you’re not in a conversation. 

 

The best communicators I know listen far more than they talk. You really get the feeling that when they do talk you had better be paying attention because you don’t want to miss it. 

 

I personally feel comfortable telling someone I’m a good speaker. I can’t honestly always rate myself that well when I take out the word speaker and replace it with communicator. But the fact that I know the difference between speaking and communicating at least gives me a chance to improve. 


As always I remain a work in progress. How about you?

Can a Leader Over Communicate?

A few weeks back the local newspaper in Minneapolis published a story on the best companies to work for in Minnesota. There were big companies, medium size and very small companies listed. 

 

They were from a variety of industries with many of the companies having a very diverse workforce, even the smaller ones. Some had leaders who had been at the helm a long time while others had newer leadership. There were many differences in the various organizations. 

 

But there was one thing that all, that’s all, as in every, organization seemed to have in common. When employees of organizations on the list were interviewed they all spoke of the importance of communication. 

 

A good work environment is dependent upon many factors. None are more important than open, consistent, and honest communication. 

 

“Work” is a vital part of most people’s lives. They spend, or hopefully, invest, a large percentage of their waking hours there. People have this space within them that holds the information they deem vital for their lives. Since work is vital they must have as much information as possible about where they work. They need to know how the organization is doing, if it’s stable, if it’s growing and what the future holds. If that information isn’t supplied for them then they fill the gap themselves, often with rumor.

 

Information is the enemy of rumor. If you don’t like rumors running around your organization then the fastest way to smother them is with accurate information.

 

I’ve known many people in leadership positions who believed and still believe that information is power. They believe that knowing something that their people don’t makes them more important. Some believe it makes them smarter and more indispensable. Others believe that “secrets” must be kept because it’s “best” to keep employees guessing. I knew a senior leader years ago who literally told me a key part of his job was to keep his people guessing about what he wanted from them. That’s crazy!

 

There is little information that must be kept secret. Yes, there are some legalities involved, especially for publicly held companies. But overall there is a lot more information withheld from an organization’s people than needs to be. 

 

Leaders should never withhold information from their people only for the sake of withholding it. Most leaders are very good about not being careless with information that must be protected. Most leaders are also very very careless about sharing information that their people need to know. They mindlessly forget how important the organization is to their people. Sometimes they simply lack the empathy needed to understand the importance of communication.

 

There have never been more avenues of communication available for leaders of organizations than there are today. Depending on the size of your organization you can email a brief weekly newsletter to your team or post a weekly blog on your company intranet. You can develop your own social media site for your organization. You can create a podcast for senior leaders to update people on what’s happening with the business. 

 

The key is consistent, regular and frequent, very frequent, communication. The younger your employees the more they crave that communication. Once a year or even once a quarter does not get it done anymore. 

 

There is no excuse for not communicating with your people. Unless of course you’re simply too busy. If that’s the case and you’re too busy to connect with your people then you need to realize that your also too busy to lead.


The answer to the question that makes up the title of this post NO, a leader cannot, absolutely cannot, over communicate.

Why Good Communication Matters

I’m really hard pressed to think of a situation where a leader could over communicate. I suppose it’s those situations similar to when a follower might ask what time it is and the answer includes the history of watch making. I don’t think there are actually many leaders who do that.

 

In my experience it’s far more likely that a leader will under-communicate than over-communicate.

 

It really isn’t necessary to provide more information to a member of your organization than they need to be successful. It is however vital that they have every last drop of information available when it’s relevant to whatever it is they have been tasked with doing. 

 

There are many reasons a leader might under-communicate but a big one is that too many leaders believe that information is power. That’s not actually how it works. The fact is, applied information is power and that information cannot be applied until it is shared. 

 

Leaders who withhold information from their people, for whatever reason, are not helping anyone, least of all themselves. A leader’s success is dependent upon the success of their people and without information their people are less likely to be successful.

 

Information is the enemy of rumor. People have this spot inside them that must be filled with information, if their leaders don’t fill it they will fill it themselves. Rumors are great filler! The trouble with rumors is that they are far too often wrong, filled with productivity killing miss-information. 

 

That’s why well thought out, meaningful and consistent communication matters so much.

 

If you’re a leader who doesn’t like rumors then stop them with information, correct, useful, and needed information.

 

Sometimes people at the top of an organization forget how invested their people are in the business. Your people want to know how the organization is doing, they want to know where they “fit.” They NEED to know they matter and that what they do is importance to the overall health of the organization. 

 

If you’re a leader then you have information that has the potential to super-charge your people. Don’t keep it a secret, don’t think being the only person who knows it makes you more important. Share the information and trust your people to use it to the benefit of the team. 


If you’re truly a leader that’s exactly what they will do. 

Leading With Communication

You won’t find too many excellent leaders who are poor communicators. Some are better than others when presenting in front of large groups and some are better in one-on-one situations but overall, excellent leadership requires effective communication.

Effective communication means speaking in such a way that what you’re saying is crystal clear, easy to understand and hard to forget. Truly effective communicators accept 100% responsibility for the clarity of their message. They don’t blame others for misunderstandings.

Just so we’re all on the same page here I want to make it clear that I’m talking about face-to-face communication. The verbal kind, you know, like speaking with people.

Some leaders believe they can use technology as a substitute for personal communication. They blog, use their organization’s intranet, newsletters, etc. That’s all good because it helps support a message and sometimes repetition is required. But it’s a mistake to think those tools will ever take the place of face-to-face personal communication. 

There is no media that can communicate a leader’s intensity and passion as well as personal, human contact. When a leader exits the relatively safe confines of their office to personally speak with members of their team it automatically adds weight to whatever it is they are saying.

Leaders who are good communicators speak with absolute clarity, they limit the use of buzzwords, jargon and corporate-speak. Their actions match their words, if they say they will do it, then they do it. That consistency adds significance to every statement they make.

It is important for a leader to be an effective communicator when speaking to large groups but it’s vital for leaders to be effective when speaking one-on-one.

So, excellent leaders speak well but….Authentic Servant Leaders speak well AND listen well. They know that speaking is only part of communicating; effective communication is a two-way street and if you never stop to listen you are not communicating well, no matter how good of a speaker you might be. 

Most people merely listen to respond, Authentic Servant Leaders listen to understand. They linger on the words being spoken until they understand the intent of the speaker. If they are not certain they fully understand what was said they ask for clarification. They don’t guess and they don’t assume, they ask.

The very best communicators are incredible listeners. It seems that by truly, completely listening to what other people are saying they always know just what to say in return and exactly how to say it. 

Perhaps the true secret to speaking well is listening even better!

Why Communication Matters

Communication is pretty much at the middle of everything we do. It adds to or subtracts from our efforts to build solid relationships. It demonstrates our competence and confidence…. or not.

Every effective leader understands the importance of clear communication but not enough leaders seem willing to invest the time to be certain that they are communicating well. Every human interaction leaves behind an “emotional wake.” Every time you have a conversation with someone you leave them feeling better or worse. They may feel better or worse about you or they may feel better or worse about themselves. Either way this much is certain, there are no neutral human interactions. Every human interaction changes something. 

Communication is at the heart of every human interaction and communication is much more than the words we speak. Studies show that effective communication is 7% the words we say and 93% tone and body language.

So choose your words well, even more important, choose when and how you say them exceptionally well.  

Words spoken while angry never seem to come out the way we want; no matter how careful we think we are. Angry words can turn a small misunderstanding into a big misunderstanding so ditch the anger BEFORE attempting to communicate. 

But don’t use anger as an excuse to not attempt communication because lack of communication is just as bad. Poor communication and no communication are often the cause of problems between people. Wars have literally been caused by miscommunication. Think about the last 5 arguments you had with another person, I’d bet a small fortune that lack of communication or poor communication was at least part of the problem.

When leaders fail to communicate effectively they can cause frustration, bitterness, and confusion among their followers. Effective communication can eliminate rumors and bottlenecks. It builds stronger working relationships. When your people know their role within the organization and understand how what they do makes a difference there is a sense of value and accomplishment. 

Leaders who communicate well create an environment where people work together for the greater good. Excellent communication can help foster a culture of teamwork and selfless effort. 

Successful leadership requires clear and concise communication. It’s safe to say that if you’re not communicating well then you’re not leading well either.

So, what have you to say about that? 

Write Better Emails, Not Bitter Emails

Any idea which letters are the most dangerous letters in all of cyberspace? They are the ones which when strung together spell SEND! The most dangerous icon on some computers may be the one that looks like a little paper airplane. When you click on it you hear a little whooshing sound that lets you know the email you’ve just sent has permanently been placed into cyberspace. 

That’s why you should never hit send when you’re angry, what you send stays sent. (Yes, I know about that recall thing and I know how often it doesn’t really work)

Angry emails are almost always bad emails. 

You may feel better temporarily because you “got it off your chest” but you’ve just damaged a relationship, possibly your integrity or worse, both. So the first rule of sending better emails is to never send a bitter one. My mom used to always say “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” and it took me a while (still learning) to understand what she meant. She meant you’re better off being nice, in any situation, than not being nice. 

So be nice when writing emails. 

One way to be nice when writing emails is to write “better” emails. Better is a bit subjective but here are a few widely accepted ideas on what “better” looks like in real life.

Be concise. On average we spend about 25% of our workday messing around with email. Many, actually most, are filled with just one or two (if we are lucky) highly relevant points and the rest of the message is just filler. Don’t write like that!

I think it was Mark Twain who said, “If I’d had more time, I would have written you a shorter email.” Okay, he didn’t really say email but the point is the same, don’t be a lazy writer, put some thought into your emails with the goal of writing nothing more than needs to be written. 

Get to the point. Delete adjectives and adverbs. It’s absolutely unnecessary to add lots of additional words that make even your most important emails seem overly lengthy and too long and not short enough. Say what you mean and say it in as few words as possible, remember, when it comes to a well written email, less is more.

Reread before sending…twice. A great reason to keep your emails short is because the first person who has to read them is you. I’d be willing to bet that when you reread your emails you’ll likely just delete some of them after deciding they don’t really add value to anyone. Or you may just decide the tone is too harsh, or the whole thing is too meandering or that you’re repeating yourself or that your repeating yourself. 

End at the beginning. Most people begin an email by filling in the “to” field. That’s likely the last time they look at that critical field. To help ensure your email is received by the person you intended to receive it fill in the “to” field last and check and recheck the recipient’s name. NEVER assume the auto-complete feature can really read your mind. Be certain you know where your message is going because once it’s gone it’s gone for good…or bad. 

It’s a sad reality, at least it’s sad to me, that the majority of our communication today is of the electronic variety. That reality makes it imperative that we pay as much attention to what we write as we do with what we say. If you wouldn’t say it then absolutely don’t write it!