Clear Trumps Clever


Leaders are communicators. When a leader has a cleverly crafted message that is hard to understand it is like looking at the car in this image. The car looks cool. You are just not sure what the builder intended. In this post I share four questions that will bring more clarity to your message.

Clarity In The Bible:

When we listen to God speak, we know that clarity counts:

  • God's message to Adam and Eve was clear: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:16-17 ESV
  • God's message to Israel was clear: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." Exodus 20:2-3 ESV
  • God's message about how to have life with him is clear: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16 ESV

Yes, there were times God intentionally made his message obscure. Most times, however, God was as clear as black on white. Leaders must do the hard work to communicate clearly. As the Apostle Paul pointed out to the church at Corinth, "If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?"1 Corinthians 14:8 ESV

Clarifying your message is hard work. History helps us to see the payoff.

Clarity In History

Turning the pages of history we discover that great leaders were also communicators. Let's consider two leaders, the Scottish reformer John Knox and our 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

  • What Eustace Percy said about Knox: “He had great powers of expression; he was not only articulate, he was an artist.”[1]
  • What Will Rogers, American cowboy and humorist said about FDR: "The beauty of that first prime-time radio speech was its clarity. ‘He made everyone understand it, even the bankers,’ Will Rogers said. ‘He is the first Harvard man to know enough to drop three syllables when he has something to say. Why compared to me, he’s almost illiterate.’” [2]

FDR's biographer, Jonathan Alter, noted that when the first Hundred Days of the Roosevelt administration were over, President Roosevelt had transformed the office with his legislative initiatives coupled with excellent communication. "Presidents thereafter would have to perform the role of communicator in chief and legislator in chief or risk irrelevance." [3]

All leaders are "communicators in chief." So how do we get better? Here is a simple communication exercise you can use to evaluate your last talk

4 Questions To Gain More Clarity

It is easy to bring more clarity to your message. Just ask these four questions.

Question 1: Have I asked God for his help?

Moses was looking for any excuse to get out of the Exodus assignment. Stuttering and stammering, Moses complained to God, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue." God responded with five words that every communicator must memorize: "Who gave man his mouth?"[4]

If you want more clarity, start by asking for help from the One who made your mouth.

Question 2: Have I identified my subject?

"If you aim at nothing you'll hit it every time." This applies to communication too. What are you trying to communicate? Specifically, what is your subject? If you are talking about bicycles then say it: "My subject is bicycles." Now, stick with bicycles. Don't talk about bikes and trikes. Next, once you've found your subject, narrow it. When it comes to bicycles, you can talk about the joy of riding them, how to fix them, why bicycles are better than tricycles, bicycles built for two, classic bicycles, racing bicycles ... you get the point.

If you want more clarity, identify your subject and then narrow it.

Question 3: Have I written my "ugly sentence"?

We should be able to condense the essence of every presentation into twenty-five words or less. This sentence conveys the BIG IDEA of your message. It does not have to be flowery or scholarly. Comedian and communication expert Ken Davis calls it your "ugly sentence."[5] It is not the sentence that is going to win you the Pulitzer Prize, it is the sentence that is going to make sure you are understood. Here's my ugly sentence for this post:

Everyone can get clearer communication by answering four questions.

Make sure your ugly sentence has a key word. Mine is "questions." Your key word is your anchor that is going to keep your talk from drifting. When it comes to your key word, Davis says you've got to know it, memorize it, and think about it as you speak or write.[6] For example, if your subject is bicycles and you are aiming at convincing people to start riding their bikes again, your key word might be "benefits." "Today I am going to share with you four benefits of riding a bicycle. Here's the first benefit .... " 

If you want more clarity, write your ugly sentence. Make sure it has a key word. Then use it![7]

Question 4: Have I asked someone to evaluate in advance?

Who evaluates your communication? People who submit to the pain of evaluation are people who will communicate more clearly. The good news is that you don't have to wait until after you have communicated your message to get feedback. Give your draft to two trusted (and honest) friends. Ask them for candid feedback. Specifically, you want to know what works, what does not work, and why.

If you want more clarity, ask someone to evaluate your presentation in advance.

Clear and Clever

Sometimes, as in the picture below, we can be both clear and clever. The school bus is definitely a cool bus. It feels good when clear and clever walk hand in hand. But make clarity your goal, otherwise your talk will end up like the funky car at the top of this post. You don't want people walking away after your talk saying, "Now what did he say?" Clear trumps clever. May God make you clear.


[1] Douglas Bond quotes Percy on page 67 in The Mighty Weakness of John Knox. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishers. 2011.

[2] Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days And The Triumph Of Hope. Page 269.

[3] Alter, The Defining Moment. Page 306.

[4] Exodus 4:11 NIV

[5] Ken Davis, "Key Word: Choose it and Use it!" Accessed August 29, 2012.

[6] Davis, "Key Word"

[7] Davis, "Key Word"