While flying home from Europe on British airlines I read an article in their travel magazine about clear writing. I thought that some of the concepts apply equally to communication generally. Since we trial lawyers are supposed to be experts in communication I am sharing a few of the ideas which I’m sure most of you already know about, but refreshing our knowledge can be helpful.
1. First organize your ideas into a logical outline. Thinking about what you want to say before you say it or write it is a critical step. Too often we start talking before we put our mind in gear. Take the time to organize your thoughts first.
2. Stick to the point. One common mistake lawyers make is to drift away from the point. They are easily distracted. In cross-examination, this can be the difference between a good cross examination and one that is not.
3. Use plain language. It has been said that the first lawyer who talks like a lawyer will lose the case. Use simple words and plain talk. Simple is better. Avoid all legal jargon and abbreviations or acronyms. Abraham Lincolns Gettysburg address is only 275 words long and 196 of these words have only one syllable. Also, avoid clichés.
4. Use strong action (active) verbs. For Example it is more powerful to say “we enjoyed our vacation” instead of “our vacation was enjoyed by us.” It is better to say “the guests enjoyed the food at the party” because it involves an action verb. In other words, make your sentences action verbs because the passive voice is weaker. Weak verbs lack power.
5. Make it interesting. One of the the important ways of keeping the communication interesting is by telling it as a story. We all notice that when someone is discussing the subject our interest is immediately attracted when the person begins to tell a story. We know that story telling is the way in which people learn and for which they are virtually hard wired.
6. State the point before the reasons. Unless you are writing a detective story you should state your point before you lay out the reasoning for it. If the reader does not know the point you are trying to make, the reasoning is not as relevant as when they know what point you are trying to make. Put your point in the first sentence. Make your primary point first.
7. One idea per paragraph. Your communication should move clearly from one idea to the next idea by dividing them into separate paragraphs.
We all need to strive to communicate clearly. The first rule of all communication is this: Communication not what we say. It is what the other person understood. When there is miscommunication about what we have said or written it is our fault and not that of the other person. Too often we are focused on us – how we think we should sound or write from an ego standpoint. When the goal is simplicity and clear communication we are not focused on showing off our knowledge or vocabulary or grasp of legal terms. These few simple rules are harder to apply than to lay out. Good luck.