A time for absolute clarity

There have been times in my working life when it wasn’t enough for me to get my facts right. I had to present the information in a way that was unimpeachable. My writing was going to be analysed minutely for any signs of a mistake. It was stressful to write under those circumstances but, over time, I picked up several tips to help me avoid the most frequent pitfalls:

  • Facts don’t speak for themselves as often as you think they do
  • Figures can be even more reticent to divulge their meaning
  • If you’re struggling to explain yourself, a picture can make things worse
  • It doesn’t help if you use words with the wrong meaning

Facts don’t speak for themselves as often as you think they do

From time to time, we look at some information and the conclusion it points to seems to be completely obvious without any additional explanation. That’s why so many people like the expression: “the facts just speak for themselves”.1Or, as lawyers and Latin-speakers like to say, res ipsa loquitur.

But no matter how much a set of facts speaks to you – or to me – very few facts speak everyone’s language. More often than not, we need to acquire a fair amount of background knowledge or expertise before a set of facts is able to tell us anything useful. (And that’s a fact.) We tend to become so familiar with our own area of understanding that we fail to spot the leaps of logic it will take for other people to infer something that, to us, is blindingly obvious.

There is a time and a place for subtlety (which I discuss on the next page). But if you want to be certain that your message will be understood in exactly the way you intend it to be understood, there is no substitute for articulating clearly the conclusion(s) you want the reader to grasp. Don’t leave the facts to speak for themselves, nor the readers to draw their own inferences.2And, of course, if you are using the Question & Answer Technique, you should state the conclusion(s) first and the facts later.

I well remember a conversation I had some years ago with a colleague who looked after a building owned by a company where I was the chairman. He had spotted something that looked odd to him. When he had investigated it carefully, he reported to me in detail what he had found. This particular colleague was prone to use a lot of terms that I wasn’t familiar with but, on this occasion, I understood every single word he used. I was so pleased with myself! I especially understood the very expensive repairs he wanted me to authorise him to get started on. I wondered whether they were really necessary and I asked if we couldn’t leave them for now. His response was withering:

Do you want the basement to flood next time it rains?

Up till that moment, my colleague had made no mention at all of rain or the possibility of flooding. He had thought the implication was obvious. Not to me, it wasn’t.  

Experts from all walks of life make this mistake. Here’s another example with potentially life-and-death consequences and yet someone who should have known better failed to frame his message clearly. The example comes from the worldwide coronavirus pandemic of 2020, at a time when the UK’s initial “lockdown” was slowly being eased.

Having announced that schools were to remain closed to many children, for safety reasons, the UK Government also announced, just two days later, that zoos could re-open. Ministers were, no doubt, astonished when the press (and others) piled in asking why children could go to the zoo but not to school. Frankly, so was I. The reasoning was obvious to me and obvious, presumably, to the Prime Minister who made the announcement. But not so obvious to many others who simply didn’t realise that, in the context of coronavirus, visiting a zoo is so much safer than attending school.

Why? Because zoos are outdoors3Of course, some zoos have indoor areas, but those areas were not being permitted to re-open. and visitor numbers can be restricted so that everyone can maintain the required distance from each other. But schools are indoor areas and classrooms are too small for all students to attend and yet be kept sufficiently far apart.

Sometimes, it is tedious to have to spell out what seems so obvious – and, in the case of an ongoing event, to keep on spelling it out, day after day – but inferences and logical consequences aren’t equally obvious to everyone. When addressing an audience that doesn’t share your expertise, clarity is only achieved if you express your message – and explain your message – clearly.

Figures can be even more reticent to divulge their meaning

Some people love numbers. Others hate them. Everyone else learns to live with them … sometimes a little reluctantly.

At times, a table of numbers can help to illustrate a point or bring out the details in a way that would take so much longer than an explanation in words. But that doesn’t mean the numbers are able to “speak for themselves”.

The Créative France website believed4The site was live when I wrote this page, but it has since been discontinued that the figures below speak for themselves, sending out a message about France’s creativity. But do the figures talk to a reader? Or just engulf them in noise?

a load of figures as supposed evidence of French creativity
[I have edited the original slightly so that it fits here]

At the opposite end of the scale, some figures are so weak that they barely whisper a message, let alone speak it. Sometimes they just make insinuations that they can’t back up. Writing in the Guardian, British politician, David Lammy MP, told readers that there hadn’t been enough Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) panellists on BBC’s political discussion programme, Question Time. Lammy wrote that these two figures spoke for themselves: (1) only 9% of panellists were from a BAME background; and (2) almost two-thirds of shows (61%) had no BAME panellist. But is 9% obviously too few? Is 61% obviously too many? The figures, themselves, don’t tell us.5I did some research which suggested that these percentages actually point to the selection of panellists having probably been a tad biased in favour of BAME representatives not against. There is, of course, a political case for being more than a tad biased in favour of BAME in situations like this. But the figures themselves don’t know how to make that argument. David Lammy probably does, but he didn’t do so in his article.

Unless you are communicating with someone who can be relied upon to interpret numbers in the same way that you do, it is almost always necessary to use words to explain what you think the numbers are saying. And, if you are making an argument, you probably need to say why the figures support you.

If you want to be helpful to your reader (which, hopefully, you do) the explanation should be given before the reader gets to the numbers, not afterwards. That way, the reader knows in advance what they are looking for. Without that bit of help, the reader typically looks at the numbers, wonders what to make of them, then reads the text beneath the figures and finally goes back to look at the numbers once more to see if they support your interpretation of them. You can save your readers a lot of time if you just tell them, first.

If you’re struggling to explain yourself, a picture can make things worse

Many have been the times when I was working on a report or a presentation involving concepts that were difficult to explain. After several failed attempts, one of my colleagues would suggest using an image or a drawing. After all, they would say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

But it never worked. Why is that? Were my colleagues and I just not good enough with visuals to find the right one? It’s possible, but I don’t think so.

We tend to forget that, even though a picture can often convey a thought or an emotion much more quickly than text could have described it – and a chart or a diagram can communicate, at a glance, an array of facts or ideas – the reality is that we all have to learn how to interpret visual representations just as much as we had to learn how to read words and numbers. A new picture format requires new learning.

To see what I mean, think about a drawing of a house. When you were very young, a house was drawn something like the picture below on the left. By the time you were old enough to start choosing a place to live in, the nature of the drawing had (hopefully) changed to a floor plan of the type shown in the picture on the right.

a child-like drawing of a house and an estate agent's plan of an apartment
Two alternative presentations of a home

Imagine showing the right-hand picture to a child who has never seen a floor plan before and telling them it is a drawing of their new home. Expect to be met with a lot of questions!  

In my experience, whenever we are genuinely stuck for a way to put our ideas into words, it almost certainly means that there isn’t a recognised graphical presentation for the ideas we are trying to convey. We have to invent a new format. And that almost always means we will have to explain it … in words. Which takes us right back to square one: looking for words to explain a visual presentation of the very thing we were struggling to describe in the first place. 

Here’s an example of someone trying to use a graphic to explain why some things go in and out of fashion repeatedly. The concept is known as negative frequency-dependent selection. If you don’t already know what that is, does the diagram help you? Perhaps some people get it, but it certainly didn’t do anything at all for me. I still needed an explanation in words and, only then, did the sketch make any sense to me.

Click here to reveal/hide an explanation in words

Some features (such as beards) are considered attractive only when they are relatively few in number. So, when it is unusual for men to have beards, they are inclined to grow them in the pursuit of attractiveness. But when so many beards have been grown that they are no longer considered attractive, their wearers start to shave them off … until there are so few beards around that the cycle starts up again.

a complex visual representation of beards becoming more popular when they are rare and vice versa when they are popular
Source: Jono Hey – sketchplanations.com 6There are literally hundreds more sketches on the “sketchplanations” website. You may find it interesting to scroll through some of them to see which you think enhanced the text and which (if any) you think did not.

Nothing I am saying here is meant to undermine the use of graphics when they can help to illustrate a point. (I have used three, myself, on this page.) There are many pictures which convey a meaning that might take a thousand words or more to describe. And, of course, there are many visual formats that are recognised by almost everyone over primary school age: graphs, bar charts, flowcharts, maps, heat maps, architects’ plans, pie charts, Venn diagrams, organograms, family trees, anatomy diagrams, timelines – the list goes on.

If any of those formats will help you to explain something, you can feel comfortable using one of them to enhance your explanation. But, if you are struggling to find a way to articulate your idea, don’t expect a picture to magically solve the problem – especially not a picture which, itself, needs explaining in order to be understood.

It doesn’t help if you use words with the wrong meaning

Look at the following news headline that I made up. It’s short. It’s simple. I hope you will understand it:

Report blames too few bankers

There is a good chance that you understood it to mean that a report has blamed some bankers, but not enough of them. And so you should because that is what those words mean. (If you think they mean something different, stay with me. I’m coming to that.)

Now, here’s an actual BBC news headline:

Report blames too few doctors

It’s the same idea except this time not enough doctors are getting the blame, rather than not enough bankers. But the BBC news story that followed was actually trying to tell us something quite different. The BBC’s intended meaning was:

Report says there weren’t enough doctors

That is a completely different story altogether. And it’s not really what the BBC’s headline told us to expect. (If you aren’t convinced, I hope we can agree that “Report blames doctors” would be unambiguous. And so would: “Report blames a few doctors”. Changing “a few” to “too few” doesn’t really move the blame away from the doctors onto the people who decide how many of them to hire.)

How did the BBC come up with something so potentially misleading? I think two factors are at play here. First of all, I expect someone in the newsroom thought that “blames” makes a much more eye-catching headline than “says”. And it does. But “blame” doesn’t mean the same thing as “say” (or “conclude” etc) and BBC journalists probably know that.

There is a second angle to this: the audience’s instinctive bias. When I tried out my “bankers” headline on a few people, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that they interpreted it correctly (“report has blamed some bankers, but not enough of them”). But I also tried out the actual “doctors” headline on a different group of people and a number of them understood it to have the BBC’s intended meaning (“not enough doctors”). They said it was because they were used to the UK needing more doctors and so that seemed the obvious meaning. And, of course, the first group were used to the idea that not enough bankers got blamed for the financial problems of recent years.

It’s often the case that, when the audience has a predisposition to know what you intend to say, you can get away with mistakes in the way you say it. But, when it’s important to convey your meaning with absolute clarity, it’s risky to use words that depend on the audience having the right in-built bias. Your audience may take you literally.

If you mean:

Report blames [hospital] for not employing enough doctors

… why not just say it?

Here’s one for you to try. The wording below is from an announcement by the Post Office. Have a go at re-wording it to remove an error:

Please remember, on Tuesdays and Thursdays there are less queues in the afternoon.

When you think you have corrected it, click here

If you have replaced “less” with “fewer”, you wouldn’t be the only person to make that change, but you haven’t fixed the broken meaning. You may like to have another go, before clicking below to reveal what I have in mind.

When you are ready to see my recommendation, click here

The word I am looking for here is “shorter” (as in “shorter queues”, not “less queues”)! If you want customers to know which are the days when they won’t have to wait so long, it’s the length of the queues that matters not their number.

On the days when there really are fewer queues, that would suggest only that there are fewer cashiers available which might even mean that the wait to be served is longer than on other days.7And, if it’s a well-designed Post Office, there’s probably only ever one queue, with the person at the front going to whichever cashier first becomes available.

I found this example in an article about the correct use of “less” vs “fewer”. The article’s author certainly did think the announcement should say “fewer queues”. Others argue that the distinction between “less” and “fewer” is a myth. But whatever your views on the “less vs fewer” debate, I say both are wrong in this particular case!

None of these examples turns on the writer using an unusual word or using a word that doesn’t mean what the writer thinks it means. They all arise because the writer used everyday words, but failed to think about whether they were using them correctly.

Notify me of follow-up comments
Notify me of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Peter Telford

Great site! – I will read it and share it with aspiring writers.
That queues example shows something else too. Word order affects meaning and clarity, and it does so differently to different readers.
That’s partly because writing can’t deliver tone of voice, unless one resorts to B/I/U marking, which has its own drawbacks.
1. “on Tuesdays and Thursdays there are shorter queues in the afternoon”: clearly means “shorter than Tue/Thu morning”.
2. “there are shorter queues in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays”: probably means the above, but less clearly than 1; might mean “shorter than other afternoons” or “shorter than all other times”.
3. “in the afternoon there are shorter queues on Tuesdays and Thursdays”: probably means “shorter than other afternoons”.
But those are my readings, influenced by a particular educational/social background and a logic/maths approach to interpreting text. Someone else will read them differently.

Pauline Armitage

Why mention queues? Given that this is an announcement for the general public I’d prefer
“Remember Post Offices are less busy on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.”
…why should this be I wonder?