clarity of communication


By Steve Johnson

No matter the situation, knowing what you want to communicate is vital. I often encounter would be communicators who are quick to determine they need a message to deliver – in an email, on a conference call, during a panel discussion, at a town hall meeting, or as a keynote speaker. But often, these communicators don’t have a real handle on what it looks or sounds like. More difficult is coming up with a message that is complete sentence.

I will offer you this: the science of message delivery is perfected by targeting 11 words. (11 words.)

A high-quality message has direction, perspective; it is declarative. For our message to stick, it needs to be repeatable. That means it needs to be concise. Over the past four years, I have spent more than a few hours counting the words in the most effective messaging that I have developed, that has been developed by clients or that I’ve seen in the wild. Every one of those uses declarative, descriptive language – and averages 11 words. This is especially true when we are communicating verbally.

This is my philosophy on message development: If you had to boil your presentation, speech, meeting, hallway conversation…whatever…down to one sentence, what would it be? Getting your message short makes it easily repeatable…a critical element for audience retention.

Just about every time I introduce the idea to a client, there is some pushback about 11 words not being able to express everything she or he would like. But the message doesn’t need to carry every bit of information. Many messages are crammed with support points or storytelling. The message only needs to serve as a headline. And when you start thinking of it that way – start accepting the message rarely, if ever, stands by itself – conciseness becomes clearer.

To be effective in communications, you need to be concise. (10 words.)

While Nobel Prize recipient Richard Feynman was teaching at Cal Tech, he asked if a cataclysm where all the scientific knowledge was destroyed, where only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what would be the sentence that contains the most information in the least number of words? He posited the atomic hypothesis:

“All things are made out of atoms – little particles that move around or are in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are some distance apart, but repel being squeezed into one another.” (33 words.)

Shorter: “Everything’s made of atoms in perpetual motion attracting each other when apart, but resisting being squeezed together.” (17 words.)

Your business enterprise likely can’t be characterized in one short phrase. There are multiple objectives, activities and values that need to be expressed. But the message doesn’t need to carry all that information. It needs to synthesize what that information means to your audience. You’ll have proof points and storytelling content that provide greater context and depth. But what is the primary element you want your audience to recall?

Take a look at this message:

“Genpact’s continued investments in digital technology, combined with its geography-specific risk advisory councils that add to its domain expertise, help financial institutions transform operations to drive more strategic business impact.”

That is basically a paragraph.

“Genpact’s investments in digital technology help financial institutions transform operations and strategically impact business.” (14 words.)

How about this message from Jacqueline Novogratz of global non-profit Acumen:

“The only way to end poverty and make it history is to build viable systems on the ground that deliver critical and affordable goods and services to the poor in ways that are financially sustainable and scalable.” (37 words.)


“To end poverty, we need viable, sustainable and scalable systems on the ground.” (13 words.)

Some other excellent examples of concise messaging:

“Clariant is committed to innovation, R&D and a focus on sustainability.” (11 words.)

“The U.S. Army will always be excellent stewards of taxpayer dollars.” (11 words.)

“McDonald’s is making significant changes that are important to our customers, our people and the environment.” (16 words.)

“Our technology will help you better understand your customers.” (9 words.)

“Our experience in real estate conversion is unmatched.” (8 words.)

Often, I am working with a client on messaging to be used in various strategic communications settings: media outreach, analyst meetings, internal communications, among others. In the last month alone, however, I have listened as individuals from a pair of major corporations fell back on the company slogan – or tagline – as a message.

And while taglines – defined as a short, often catchy phrase that fully captures an organization’s mission or spirit – work great in advertising, they fall short of scope and gravitas in every other form of strategic communications.

While a tagline can reflect messaging, a tagline is not a message. (12 words.)

In a media interview, a spokesperson is not doing much to express the breadth of a new product or partnership or providing deep insight to its mission or its services by spouting: “Fly the friendly skies” or “Empowering technology” or “Have it your way” or “The power of dreams.” In fact, I’ll bet you can only ID two of the four companies represented there.

No. A message needs to be concise and declarative, like a tagline, but it needs to also state a business objective clearly. It needs to not only satisfy the audiences’ “want,” but make a good argument for the “why.” Unlike a 30-second ad, other strategic communications environments require a little more context.

Key words from a tagline may make their way into a message. In fact, it is a great way to ensure recall of critical descriptive language. But a message provides greater depth for all critical audiences.

The WNYC-FM show and podcast “RadioLab,” in April of 2020, explored the idea of what would be the one sentence various individuals would leave behind.

“You will die, and that is really the most important thing.” – Caitlin Doughty, writer and mortician

That is a declarative 11 words.


Steve Johnson
SJConnects Strategic Communications