You know what’s been the best thing for me to improve my communication skills?
It hasn’t been speaking engagements.
It hasn’t been live radio.
It hasn’t been writing this newsletter.
It hasn’t been being interviewed on national television.
It hasn’t been living nearly a decade in foreign countries.
It’s been teaching youth on the basketball court. I wrapped up my 2020 Holiday Hoops Camp last week. In one session, there were sixty 2nd through 5th graders. Boys and girls with a wide range of abilities and experiences.
Youth provide prime training ground for communication because they’re easily distracted and have endless energy. There’s no faking it — they give instant feedback, especially with a basketball in hand. Their actions show me immediately how well I explained, instructed and held attention.
Instructing youth has forced me to tweak my communication in a few ways. But what’s had the most significant impact? Simplifying.
“Everyone, get in ‘triple threat’ position.” → With a group of 5 and 6 year olds, maybe one or two kids will understand what I’m saying despite “triple threat” being a very elementary basketball concept.
Break it down to the simplest level → Assume nothing. Demonstrate everything: “Everyone, this is the stance you must be in — Feet, shoulder width apart. Knees, bent. Hips, low. Chest, up. Two hands on the ball. Eyes up.”
Kids, of course, will want to know why → “Alright, this is important because in this position you are stronger, you have better balance and you are quicker than if you were straight-legged or had your feet together.”
It’s helpful for them to understand what they can do in that position → “What are the 3 things you can now do in triple threat? 1. Dribble 2. Pass 3. Shoot.”
Whenever possible, I want them to come up with the answer → I’ll ask questions because this allows the new information to stick much better.
Visualization is also beneficial → I like to demonstrate the drills myself, but again, I want them to own the movements. So I’ll call an individual up front or have the entire group go through the steps one-by-one as I teach the concepts.
“Beginners complicate. Experts simplify.” How frustrating and annoying is it when someone attempts to impress using complex words and insider jargon? The truth is ideas that spread are communicated in a manner anyone can comprehend. Here’s how some of the most successful leaders and innovative minds communicate:
Greg Popovich revisits the fundamentals with his San Antonio Spurs every season. One of my former coaches attended a preseason practice of his. The Spurs were coming off an NBA Championship and boasted a few future Hall of Famers. My coach said Popovich was teaching the most elementary aspects of the game such as pivoting and passing and honing in on the smallest details. The best in the game make the spectacular look easy because they’ve mastered the basics.
Steve Jobs said, “Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” In 2007 Jobs unveiled the iPhone to the world. If you submit his speech into the Hemingway App (a tool educators use to measure readability), it rates at a 3rd grade level.
Richard Branson said, “Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.”
Elon Musk in a letter to employees wrote, “Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software or processes at Tesla. In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla.” When Musk introduced the PowerWall, a complex home battery in 2015, his speech measured at the 3rd grade level as well.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The proof of a high education is the ability to speak about complex matters as simply as possible.” This is more important today than ever before. Anyone can find the answer in a quick Google search, but there’s tremendous value to those who are able to translate sophisticated ideas and issues into everyday words.
The point of communication isn’t to impress. That’s easily done through fancy words and long-winded explanations. The point of communication is to bring clarity to complexity. It’s to create buy-in and enable understanding. Ultimately, communication is about moving others to take action…and that’s best done by keeping it simple.