Harvard neuroscientist says “The ‘most underrated’ skill all successful people have—‘especially introverts’

I’ve always been an introvert. When I got my first job after earning my Ph.D. in neuroscience, I was concerned that I’d have a tough time communicating with others.

But I quickly learned that I didn’t need to force myself to be extroverted. The most underrated skill that successful people, especially introverts, have is the ability to write clearly.

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. If you are a thoughtful and strategic writer, you’ll be more confident in your interactions —  emails, public speaking, or even small talk. Here’s my best advice:

1. Pick the correct format for your message.

Before you share an idea or request, could you decide on the best format to deliver your information? For example, a PowerPoint displaying charts and images may be the best format if you share research involving complex data.

If you are announcing management decisions, could you send a detailed email? Bullet points are a great way for readers to focus on and digest information. You can also use the “STAR” method: situation, task, action, and result. FoA short email or in-person visit is generally sufficien for discussions like progress updates or collecting feedback

2. Avoid industry jargon.

Plain and simple language is the most effective way to articulate complex topics. Avoid jargon or industry acronyms, no matter how universal you think they are.

You should consider using graphics or analogies to drive your point home. One of the best examples I’ve ever seen was when an executive designed his annual financial strategy presentation to mimic a children’s book.

But don’t include extraneous details that can go off-topic or overwhelm the audience. If it’s unnecessary for the conversation, move it to the bottom of your note.

3. Reduce the amount of effort the audience needs to put in.

Your recipients are bombarded with emails and documents all day. So before you send anything:

  • Remind them why you are reaching out (e.g., “regarding yesterday’s meeting…”).
  • Format the email, so it’s easy to read on phone screens (e.g., short, bulleted sentences).
  • Call out action items (e.g., “the next steps are…,” “the deadline is…”).
  • If your message exceeds one page, create a separate document to attach and use the email to provide highlights.

Don’t assume that the audience has the same amount of context as you. Provide baseline information to bring everyone to the same starting line.

4. Show your work.

If you are dealing with a potentially controversial topic (e.g., allocating a budget or restructuring a company department), walk readers through your thought process.

This approach builds confidence and shows people that you are thorough, can weave together several nuanced perspectives, and can provide key context when it comes to big decisions.  Invite feedback, and make note of any concerns.

5. Write with precision.

Finally, you want to make sure you project a strong and capable presence in all aspects of your job. Before you send anything:

  • Don’t be sloppy. Check for typos, grammar and consistency in numbers.
  • Avoid unnecessary jokes and humor. They don’t translate well in writing, especially with people who don’t know you.
  • Challenge yourself to remove as many words, sentences and even whole ideas as possible. Then ask: Does my thesis still stand?

Essentially, you should treat words like the valuable currency they are.

Juliette Han is a neuroscientist, biotech executive, faculty member at Columbia Business School, and academic advisor at Harvard Medical School. She holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University, as well as an MS in physiological sciences and BS in neuroscience and physiological science, both from UCLA.

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