Conflicts, especially within organizations full of smart and well-intentioned people, often turn out not to be rooted in substantial differences at all. Much more often, minor misunderstandings are what actually wreaks havoc on our ability to collaborate. Yet, the consequences can range from a diffuse sense of constant irritation to an unnecessary proliferation of endless clarification meetings. I therefore believe that precise communication is an organizational superpower, just as much as a lack thereof can quickly poison a company’s otherwise healthy culture.
Doubtlessly, countless great things have been said and written about how to coherently express one’s thoughts and ideas, none of which I intend to repeat here. However, I want to highlight a few particular examples that show how some people manage to articulate even the most complex circumstances intelligibly, both verbally as well as in writing. Of course, these outstanding communicators should serve as role-models rather than as templates to blindly imitate. But I also believe that immersing oneself in, and paying particular attention to, their outstanding skills of expression can have a substantial positive influence on one’s own abilities as well.
It is unfortunately very hard in our society to have long and deep conversations about controversial topics. Increasing polarization, in-group bias, social media, and ever-shortening attention spans have turned our culture into one of soundbites and 30-second TikTok flicks, rather than one of profound discourse. Sam Harris is an outspoken yet controversial public intellectual, and on his podcast he talks with equally intelligent people, not all of whom he agrees with. The serious level of discussion however, as well as the thoughtful construction and refutal of arguments that he and his guests display exemplify how even the most difficult conversations can be had in a civil manner.
Another outstanding public intellectual of our time, Steven Pinker, not only demonstrates what great writing looks like in his books, which include bestsellers such as “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, “How the Mind Works”, and “Enlightenment Now”. With the timeless classic “The Sense of Style” he furthermore published an entire volume on the art of writing itself. This book however goes far beyond your typical style guide of dos and don’ts, and instead covers everything from how the brain consumes written information, principles of well-reasoned arguments, and fundamental rules of logic and coherence.
German astrophysicist Harald Lesch is one of my childhood heros. On his show alpha-Centauri, he managed to translate the most complicated mathematical, physical, and astronomical problems into a language that even I was able to understand. Lesch is still highly active and has a popular YouTube channel as well as a TV programme. However, if you want to experience his full oratory skills I highly recommend checking out his earliest TV appearances on BR alpha. In the matter of less than 15 minutes, equipped with nothing more than a blackboard (which he rarely makes use of), he transports an amazing amount of scientific knowledge in a way that’s unbelievably easy to comprehend.
Writing about philosophy itself is not an easy feat, but arguing about hypothetical worlds or counterfactual realities is in a league of its own. Therefore, most academic papers on these issues are tedious to read, hard to comprehend, and generally convey little of substance. The Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom however shows that this is not a necessary state of affairs. Even though intended for an academic audience, much of his work (for example “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis” or “WHERE ARE THEY?") is comprehensible even to the layman, despite dealing with sophisticated preconditions and logical deduction on a very large scale.
Public speaking arguably has once had a much larger significance than it has today. In the 18th century for example, lawyers or politicians had to be able to articulate their, often hard to comprehend, cases in front of large audiences without the help of any multimedia gadgets. Still, the listeners had to be persuaded for the orator to achieve their goal. The tools at their disposal may have been a lot simpler than the arsenal we can pick from today, but that may actually worked in their favour: Without the ability to hide behind PowerPoint slides or auditory or video supplements, the argument alone had to be so strong that it would persuade.
Of the speeches of Daniel Webster, 19th century US politician and lawyer, we unfortunately don’t have any video clips to examine, though the doubtlessly would have excelled at formats such as TED talks. His legacy as one of the greatest orators of his time survived to this day, and we can definitely learn a lot from the written records of his Senate speeches. His most famous one, the “Second Reply to Hayne”, for example went on for two whole days. In it he vehemently refutes Robert Hayne’s point that individual states had had a lawful right to withdraw from the union. Webster fiercely and consistently pulled every available string in order to protect the integrity of the United States.
Joseph Story later beautifully summed up what made Webster’s speeches so intreating, and what we all should strive for in our ambition of expressing ourselves more clearly—even a 150 years later:
“His clearness and downright simplicity of statement, his vast comprehensiveness of topics, his fertility in illustrations drawn from practical sources; his keen analysis, and suggestion of difficulties; his power of disentangling a complicated proposition, and resolving it in elements so plain as to reach the most common minds; his vigor in generalizations, planting his own arguments behind the whole battery of his opponents; his wariness and caution not to betray himself by heat into untenable positions, or to spread his forces over useless ground."