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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Am I making myself clear?

Updated: Jul 10, 2023


Recently, my husband had a medical test in which the result read: “The trachea bronchial tree and esophagus are grossly unremarkable.” In doctor-speak, that means he has nothing to worry about.

What? Aren’t “grossly” and “unremarkable” opposites – with the first implying something extreme and unacceptable, and the second something small and not worthy of notice? Who decided they made sense when put together?

We use the word oxymoron to describe a phrase using seemingly contradictory terms. Consider these phrases: “really fake,” “living dead,” “seriously funny,” “old news,” “awfully pretty,” and “deafening silence.” Are they clear, or confusing? It depends on the audience.

Is it clear or confusing? It depends on the audience.

In a previous blog, I introduced Miss Aligned, my miscommunication character representing all of the ways we don’t speak the same language even when we all speak English.

Miss Aligned shows up as jargon, like “grossly unremarkable,” or as an oxymoron, like “exact estimate,” or as a colloquialism, like “clear as mud.” An audience may know the meaning, but they also may not. Why confuse when you can be clear?

When I ask audience members what characteristic of effective communication they want to work on most, being more concise is first and clarity is second. To be clear is to say what you mean using words that are clear to your audience.

You can read about all 10 characteristics of “words that work” and about being more concise.

Clear communication speaks the audience’s language.

So, if your audience is doctors, go ahead and say “grossly unremarkable.” But if your audience is the patient, tell them there was “nothing abnormal” or even more simply, your results are “normal.” Patients understand normal.

How do you achieve clarity in communication?

A clear message meets these criteria:

  1. defined purpose or main point

  2. organized and logical

  3. precise word choice

Let’s examine each of these criteria one at a time.

Define your purpose or main point

First, determine why you are communicating and what you hope to accomplish as a result.

“Effective communication has a clearly defined purpose and focus. Without these, communication may ramble meaninglessly, go in circles, and lead nowhere. Communication is literally pointless without a key message." Barbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, FAND, and Lori Greene, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN Chapter 15, Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide

If communicators can’t put their main point into words, they don’t have one. Begin with a clearly defined purpose or main point.

Communicate with a logical organization

Second, clarity requires a logical and organized approach. The big idea or main point needs to be evident throughout the communication, with an opening, body, and conclusion centered on this main idea.

Sentences and paragraphs are well-constructed and work together with a logical flow, presenting the main idea supported by evidence, illustrations, and examples. The modern style is used to enhance clarity.

This communication style uses active rather than passive voice and puts the subject first to assist the reader or listener in grasping the meaning more easily.

Note the difference in the following example:

  1. The preparation of the manuscript will be completed by the author.

  2. The author will complete the manuscript.

In the words of 18th-century Dutch writer, Madame de Charrière: “Have ideas that are clear, and expressions that are simple.”

Third, choose words carefully.

  • Use words the audience understands and uses. Dietitians may consume food, but most people eat. Choose simple words over complex and impressive-sounding words.

  • It’s okay to be clever, but not at the expense of clarity. If you can, deliver both.

  • Be precise rather than vague. Precision produces clarity.

  • Be descriptive. Help your audience visualize your message. Clearly.

Create your message and then check for understanding.

How do you determine if you’re being clear? Ask your audience. If someone reading or hearing your message can’t answer the question, “What’s the point?” you don’t have a clear message. So, ask a potential audience member, or a colleague, to tell you the main point of your message. Is it what you intended? If it isn’t, revise it until you get it right.

Great communicators revise, a lot. E.B. White put it this way, “The main thing I try to do is write as clearly as I can. I rewrite a good deal to make it clear.” (New York Times, Aug 3, 1942)

“If you confuse, you’ll lose.” ~ Don Miller, Story Brand

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