Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Communicate Compellingly, Not Academically

Simon Hall

Are you tired of your reports, emails, memos, even social media posts going unread and unappreciated? Here’s the solution, with my five favourite tricks for writing which really makes an impact.

Prepare yourself for a shock:

Much of how you communicate is probably the opposite of how to get your content noticed, remembered and acted on.  

One of the biggest challenges I face teaching communication skills is helping researchers, academics and many others realise the problems with their long-standing habits. That goes for my University

of Cambridge book and course, and when coaching and consulting.

In fairness, it’s not your fault if your messages aren’t hitting home. It’s because of how we were taught to write at school and in college, as well as the ways of the workplace. The accepted norms they may be, but they just don’t work for truly compelling communication.

So let me give you a quick rundown of the most important ways you’re probably going wrong. And some simple suggestions to help ensure your work makes the impact you want.

1. Start strong

How many emails, reports, memos, presentations and even social media posts do you see in a day? Yep, I wouldn’t dare think about it either. So, given such competition for attention, you’ve got to make your content irresistible.

First impressions count. Make it clear from the start you’ve got something to say which can’t be ignored. Put your value up front, right there in the opening sentence, and you’ll cut through the competition to be heard.

Which, for example, is more captivating if I’m talking about my new book?

  • In the course of my teaching, I noticed a wide ranging demand for enhanced communication skills, which is why I wrote, and am now pleased to introduce Compelling Communication, a book about writing, public speaking, storytelling, media and online skills.


  • If you want to succeed in life, Compelling Communication offers the insights you need to impress, influence and inspire.

2. Simplicity

Always Keep It Simple, Silly. KISS is a critical acronym for compelling communication.

If you thought using long words, and even longer sentences made you look clever, think again. That just puts people off.

Modern life is busy. People don’t have the attention spans, or patience, to work through content which resembles crossword clues. So remember:

  • Simple isn’t stupid. Simple is smart.

After all, if I’d begun the article this way, would you have kept reading?

  • I would like to delineate upon the hypothesis, contrary though it may appear, that the pedagogical traditions expounded in primary, secondary and indeed tertiary education, not to mention the employment environment are misaligned with the everyday prerequisites of efficacious articulation and elucidation.

3. Brevity 

How do you feel when an important report arrives and it’s 32 pages long? Ooh, mind your language!

Now contrast that with the same report appearing…

But this time, it’s two pages long. Yes, only two, and two only. And yet – remarkably – it still contains all you need to know. Now I imagine you’re feeling as relaxed as if you were enjoying Cambridge’s lovely River Cam?

If you think such beautiful brevity is impossible, a certain legend of compelling communication would disagree. In August, 1940, with World War Two raging, Sir Winston Churchill wrote a memo appealing for crisp and concise communication:

To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points. I ask my colleagues to see to it that their Reports are shorter.

How long do you think Churchill’s memo was? Yep, I suspect you’ve guessed.

It was only one page. One page only, and only one page.

Yet it still said all it needed to say.

Known as less is more, this is a joyous miracle of communication. More impact for less work. What’s not to like?

4. Content 

If you’re now convinced of the importance of brevity, how to achieve it?

In his memo, Churchill also offered wise advice on putting the art of less is more into action, requesting:

  • Reports which set out the main points in a series of short, crisp paragraphs.
  • If a report relies on detailed analysis, or some complicated factors, these should be set out in an Appendix. 
  • Let us have an end of such phrases as these: “It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…” or, “Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…” Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding.
  • Let us not shrink from using the short, expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.

As for what to include to tell a complete story, a beautiful rhyme can help. It comes courtesy of the Nobel Prize winning writer, Rudyard Kipling,:

I keep six honest serving-men

   (They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

   And How and Where and Who.

Tick off those six points, and you’ve told a complete story.

You can also help reach the beautiful land of brevity by cutting out unnecessary waffle. Just as Sir Winston suggested.

For example, how many redundant words are there in this brief sentence?

  • It’s interesting, I’d venture to say, how you can make more impact with less words. But that, of course, relies on the proviso of you choosing those words carefully and making each count. For example, how long the legendary Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln’s iconic masterpiece of speechmaking is in terms of its word count. The answer, and be prepared for a surprise here, or perhaps even a shock, is a remarkably few 270 words.

How did you get on with red penning the redundancies? This is my version:

  • You can make more impact with less words. But that relies on choosing those words carefully and making each count. For example, how long the legendary Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln’s masterpiece of speechmaking is. The answer is a remarkably few 270 words.

Or, to put it another way, 32 words saved, or almost half of the content.

That’s less is more in excellent action.

5. Ordering 

A journalist’s trick can help ensure your writing gets read. Known as the inverted pyramid structure, it’s an effective way to counter brief attention spans.

In simple terms, it means putting the most important points first. For example, memos like this risk getting lost:

  • We need to arrange a meeting. Can everyone check their diaries. The results of the audit have arrived. We could run out of money next week. We’re in serious danger of going bust.

Tedious, boring, yawn, a request for another meeting. Delete, and onto the next email.

But here’s the smartness of the inverted pyramid method. Reverse the order of those sentences, and how much more effective does the note become?

  • Finally, now you’ve finished the article, check back on the points I’ve made. Did they help make it readable, memorable, relatively brief, yet still contain all you need to know to create content with real impact?

If you’d like to know more about Compelling Communication the book, you can watch a brief video here: Compelling Communication (youtube.com)

Finally, give these tricks a try and let me know in the comments how they work. I’d be delighted to hear.

Compelling Communication by Simon Hall

About The Author

Simon Hall

Simon Hall is a Course Leader in writing, public speaking and storytelling skills at the University of Cambridge. He also runs his own communication agency, Creative Warehouse. He ...

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