We all want to improve our public speaking. Any leader should relish the opportunity every time a microphone is handed to them. It’s simply another opportunity to connect what’s happening to the mission, celebrate a value, or cast the vision. But taking advantage of the moment includes two things: content and clarity. Most leaders don’t have to try too hard to share content, but being clear might be another story. Our world almost demands fast, clear, and direct communication that connects with everyone and offends no one. It may not even be possible to accomplish, but the aim of the leader is to be as clear as possible.

I’ve experienced many moments when what I said publicly didn’t translate very well to those listening. What I think I said and what people understood were two very different things! It’s the process of understanding my thoughts, putting those thoughts into words, speaking those thoughts, and then people understanding what they’re hearing.

I mean, what could go wrong, right?

This picture has helped me visualize the communication gap I’m talking about:


All too often we assume everyone else thinks the same way we do. When we make that assumption, there’s often a whole lot of distance between our thoughts and what people actually understand.

I remember a time when I asked a question during a sermon. I understood what I meant, but all I got back from the congregation was a dazed, “I don’t have a clue what he’s asking…” look.

In good fashion, my wife explained to me after the service:

“You asked us: ‘Does anyone have lost loved ones?’ I, and maybe others, thought you were asking if we had loved ones who have passed away.”

In the context of the sermon, that understanding didn’t really make sense, but the wording left everyone confused nevertheless.

I was trying to ask: “Who has loved ones who don’t know Jesus?”  My point – I could have been a lot clearer! When we don’t try to improve and prepare well, we basically avoid clarity.

When we avoid clarity, we invite ambiguity,
and ambiguity is nobody’s friend.

The clearer we are, the better chances we have of getting our point across. If we convey our message correctly, we decrease the likelihood of confusing someone or, heaven forbid, offending someone.

How can I improve my clarity when I speak?

After speaking with my wife, I remember thinking, “I thought I was getting better at this!” No doubt I was, but we often miss something really important – when it comes to public speaking (and many aspects of leadership) we should always be looking for ways to continuously improve.

We can all improve our clarity, and we need to improve it every day.

Let me share seven clarity tips that have helped me improve my clarity on an ongoing basis. I hope they can help you continue to become great verbal communicators, as well.

1. Formulate thoughts on paper first.

This is true for many forms of communication. Getting our thoughts down on paper helps us to solidify our understanding and bring clarity to the message.

It’s true for speaking to a big audience or in a small staff meeting. Preparing written notes will help ensure our verbal words are also well prepared. This doesn’t mean you have to read your written notes word-for-word, but the act of writing the message down helps in our own understanding, phrasing, and the order in which we communicate each point. I very rarely read my notes word-for-word, but you can guarantee I’ve taken the time to write down the message.

When you formulate your thoughts on paper, ask yourself some questions:

  • Do I fully understand what I’m saying? It’s difficult to communicate something you don’t know.
  • Who will be listening to the message? Do I have to explain further, or can I assume?
  • Does the order flow? Do my thoughts make logical sense?

If I was honest, my unclear question was “off the cuff” and not in my notes. I’m sure unwritten statements will still happen from time to time, but the more I prepare key statements and questions in advance, the fewer issues I’ll face.

2. Assume those listening don’t know the ‘lingo.’

In certain settings, there’s certainly a level of ‘lingo’ that’s acceptable. During a committee meeting, or at a conference where people generally speak the same language, could be examples. But generally speaking, and certainly in public settings, assuming people know the ‘lingo,’ doesn’t usually end well.

I grew up attending Sunday services and I know all the ‘church lingo.’ It can be very difficult to stop using words and phrases that seem to be very natural. In public spaces (like a church), however, everyone may not come from the same background. In fact, if we actually carry out the mission of the church, there should be many people who don’t speak, let alone understand, typical ‘church lingo.’

For example, the word ‘lost’ can imply several different things – everything from ‘death’ to ‘confused’ to ‘I can’t find the exit.’ If my goal is clarity, word choice has to be a BIG part of the plan.

One of the best ways I’ve learned to identify ‘lingo’ issues is by asking those who listen, for feedback. I have some regular people I ask (my wife is really good at that), but I also seek out feedback from others as well. Some of the best feedback I’ve ever received has come from ‘new listeners,’ and people who come from different cultures, and ethnicities. Most people love to be helpful!

3. Vet it before you ask it.

I attempt to vet as much as I can through others before I speak or post online – especially online.

For example, my wife hears many versions of my thoughts long before anyone else does. Her words of caution, questions of clarity, and pure wisdom have saved me time and time again!

I have also used a review panel for some blog posts before things are published for the first time (especially the controversial posts).

Even small groups can be a safer place to share new ideas and concepts before launching them to larger audiences or online.

Is it a perfect system? No.

Will it help in being clearer? I think so.

Vetting will, at the very least, prepare us for any possible backlash. It’s always nice to be able to ‘see it coming.’

4. Allow for time, space, and prayer.

Sleep on it!

It’s just not a popular phrase. Clarity often comes with time and sleep, in particular. Sleep is one of the best ways to confirm our thoughts and ideas.

Some of the best sermons and speeches I’ve ever shared have followed long periods of rest.

Take the material, prepare, and allow time, space, and prayer to develop it. It’s amazing how the perfect story, illustration, or concept will develop over time. It might be exactly what’s needed to bring clarity to the message.

5. KNOW the message; REFINE the message.

When preparing over the course of time and space, it’s possible to really get to KNOW the message. When we get to that point, we can truly understand the core message and are able to refine the message into a phrase or two.

Sometimes this can be a pithy line, or simply a core thought that summarizes everything well.

Either can help. If it’s a pithy line, it can help those listening to remember the message.

If it isn’t pithy, it may not be catchy by itself, but it can help in organizing the overall message – allowing to focus on the main point, and therefore increasing clarity.

If we can get to the point of actually knowing our messages really well, we also won’t be stuck to our notes.

Having notes aren’t always a bad thing (hence why I don’t have it listed here directly), but it’s not good if our notes control us.

6. Pay attention to body language.

When we know our message really well, we can focus on body language. The body language of the speaker (that’s us), and the body language of those listening.

If we want to be clearer, then we have to engage those listening with eye contact, hand motions, head nods, and expression.

We can also pay attention to the body language of those listening. If people are watching, taking notes, and quiet, they’re probably listening well. If, on the other hand, people are talking to the person next to them, looking out the window, or heaven forbid, asleep, we’ve probably lost them.

If we want to be clearer, we need to pay attention to body language and adjust accordingly.

7. Assume others are working on their communication skills as well.

One of the best things we can do in our pursuit of clarity is to assume other people are doing the same thing. This can be VERY difficult to do sometimes, but assuming the best can improve clarity for everyone.

What you thought someone said, might be completely different from what they were meaning to say.  If we can assume others are desiring to be better communicators, we’ll assume the best, not the worst from people.

Use the greater context of the message, and let’s do our best.