Before he died, beloved MIT Professor Patrick Winston would give a famous lecture to university students teaching them the value of good communication. In his introduction, he drew attention to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which calls for court martial for any officer who sends a soldier into battle without a weapon.
Winston says there ought to be a similar protection for students–and we might add, that protection should be provided for entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners, too. Namely, that no one should go through life without being armed with the ability to properly communicate.
Because, as Winston puts it:
“Your success in life will be determined largely by your ability to speak, your ability to write, and the quality of your ideas, in that order.”
The quality of your ideas.
Winston, a brilliant professor who taught thousands of students and was himself a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, also knew the power of emotional intelligence. While he recognized the value of brilliant ideas, he placed even higher importance on the ability to communicate those ideas in an impactful manner.
Let’s break down each of Winston’s keys to success, along with how you can honey your abilities.
The ability to speak
The best speakers know how to inform, persuade, and direct their listeners. They speak with confidence and conviction. In turn, they motivate their audience to take action. (Just imagine how less successful Apple may have been if Steve Jobs didn’t know how to give an effective presentation.)
So, how do you improve your ability to speak?
Here are three quick tips that can get you started:
1. Ask: How much does my audience know?
If you know a lot about a subject, it’s easy to talk over your audience’s heads. In contrast, if your audience is well-informed, it’s easy to bore them.
So, ask yourself: How much does my audience already know about my topic? If you can tailor what you say specifically to your listeners, you’ll maximize your impact.
No one will get passionate about what you have to say unless you’re passionate about it, first.
So, get to know your subject well. Clarify for yourself how it’s helped you in your work or life, and what value it holds for others. Practice speaking about it out loud, to anyone who will listen. And if you’re the type to get anxious when speaking to others, try to channel that nervous energy into enthusiasm.
The problem with passion and enthusiasm is it causes you to speak faster. But again, you have to remember your audience: That means slowing down to a pace they can absorb. (If you watch Professor Winston’s lecture, you’ll see that he speaks at a very slow, very deliberate pace–yet the audience hangs on every word.)
Deliberately practice slowing down when you speak. Record yourself in meetings or when presenting; then, listen to it later. If you find you’re speaking too fast, try taking more pauses when you speak. For example, if you ask a rhetorical question, you can pause and count silently to three before continuing. Or, if you’re asking a direct question, force yourself to wait until the person gives you an answer.
Finally, use phrases like “in other words” and “to put it simply” to repeat main points in a way that’s easy to grasp.
The ability to write
Jeff Bezos runs executive meetings based on written, narrative-style memos that take several collaborators a week or more to write. Jason Fried, the founder and CEO at Basecamp, says that they make all hiring decisions–from programmers and designers to marketers and receptionists–based on the applicant’s writing ability.
Because clear writing indicates clear thinking.
The written word has special power. It can be done at one’s own pace. It can be continually refined and improved. It influences and motivates. And as more and more work gravitates to remote, it becomes even more important to be able to communicate via writing in a concise, easy-to-understand manner.
So, how do you improve your writing skills? You have to write.
Many experienced copywriters got started by transcribing writing from other great copywriters, as an exercise. This works because when you write, you can’t help but slow down and think. Doing so helps you to internalize what you’ve written, while simultaneously increasing your own skill. In time, you create your own style while borrowing from the best practices of others.
You can do the same thing. Do you see a website or landing page that you really love? Transcribe it, word for word. Then, try doing it again–this time with your own product or service in mind, but using the same writing style. (You can do the same thing when trying to emulate any types of writing, from emails to reports.)
Another tip: If you have a question you want to ask someone, write it down first. Think about the person you want to ask, and what questions they might have; then, incorporate the answers for these in your writing.
The quality of your ideas
The ability to generate high quality ideas begins with consuming high quality ideas, first. Start by studying great thinkers, and pondering their findings. Make connections between what they’ve discovered, and what you’ve learned in your own life.
Next, focus on ideas that solve real-world problems. Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, strike when the iron is hot: When you have a problem that you just solved (or are trying to solve), write down your process, and your progress. Doing so will help you to build on previous foundations of thought and increase the quality of your ideas.
Now you need to set aside time for “deep work.” That means regular, dedicated time for creative thinking and brainstorming, as well as fleshing out those brainstorms. (Deep work also means you need to stop multi-tasking, so turn your notifications off and put your phone away.) Focus on one task or idea at a time until it’s complete, or until you’ve made significant progress.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of going for a walk, which can boost your brain’s dopamine levels as well as your creative thinking abilities.
So, if you want to increase your chances at success, remember the advice of the late Patrick Winston: don’t go into battle without your weapon. Practice speaking, writing, and thinking, and use the process above to help you do so.
Because developing the ability to share your ideas effectively will benefit you in ways that are impossible to measure.