Clarity Matters. While clarity and brevity may have become a lost art, understanding the importance of clear, lucid, and straight-forward communication is nonetheless critical to your success as a leader. In today’s column I’ll reveal (clearly and briefly) the tricks of those who practice what I call “the black art of confusion” propagated by the ruse of ambiguity.

Have you ever finished listening to an explanation from a purported subject matter expert only to wonder what it was they just said? It has been my experience that the more vague, general, or ambiguous an explanation, the less command of the subject matter the person doing the explaining likely possesses. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find much value in explanations that don’t explain anything.

I’ve always preferred passionate reason over soaring rhetoric. One of the most powerful and effective speeches of all time was less than 275 words in length, and lasted less than three minutes – it was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. When I think of messages that have stuck with me through the years, they’ve been candid, crisp, and brief. They’ve been poignant yet illustrative, but never have they been ambiguous or difficult to understand. It was Shakespeare who said, “brevity is the soul of wit.”

Those of you who know me have come to understand I prefer to cut to the chase and get to the root of an issue as quickly as possible. While I appreciate the great oratory skills of those who communicate using wonderful word pictures, or the academics who can wax eloquent while always using the best form of prose, I prefer my business communication to be quick and dirty. The art of storytelling is highly effective, but it’s also very overused – not everything requires a story. In the immortal words of Jack Webb: “The facts ma’am – just the facts.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not word bashing as I enjoy and appreciate anyone who has command of a great vocabulary, but I’ve become quite weary of listening to 30 minute explanations, which could have been, and should have been, communicated in 2 minutes. Ah, the lost art of brevity… but I digress.

What all of us need to remain on guard against are the people (notice I didn’t say professionals) who always seem to speak at the 30,000 foot level. A high-level overview is fine as a summary, but certainly not for anything beyond that. Vocabulary should be a tool for communicating expertise, and not masking a lack thereof. Let’s define what I call the black-art practices of confusion:

1. Job security by confusion: Have you ever had an employee in a particular business unit or practice area paint the picture that things are so complex that only they can solve your problem? Nothing is too complex to be explained or understood, and no single individual is invaluable. Real knowledge should be transparent, transferable, and scalable, not hoarded or kept in isolation. Trust those who are specific, and question those who aren’t.

2. Sales by confusion: At one time or another we’ve all fallen prey to a sales presentation that was so impressively sophisticated we incorrectly drew  the conclusion, “they must really know their stuff.” Regrettably, we all know how that story ends. Remember, if someone can’t explain the benefits to you in plain English, then the benefits probably don’t exist. The best sales professionals communicate in clear and succinct statements, which are factually based, and add value. They are never vague or ambiguous.

3. Intimidation by confusion: We’ve probably all had someone attempt to steamroll us at some point in our careers. Multi-syllable techno jargon, used in circular conversational patterns, with an authoritative posture doesn’t mean someone knows what they’re talking about. It usually means they are attempting to dazzle you with feigned brilliance in an attempt to intimidate. Remember that opinion doesn’t miraculously become fact simply by adding emphasis.

So, what is the best way to deal with the black art of confusion? Force people to justify their positions by being specific. Make these wizards’ of confusion give you examples of relevant experience, or have them explain their business logic in understandable terms. Make sure your peers, client’s, vendors, suppliers, partners, investors and employees all know you value clear, concise, lucid and accurate communications.