The Importance of Being Plainspoken
Speaking the truth in love and with respect
Several years ago, the Ads and Business Platform leadership at Facebook set out to identify its team values. We debated each of them, but the one that we were stuck on was, “Be Honest.” We struggled with this one during our discussions; we believed that every team should be honest, so what made this a value specific to us? “Who takes the other side of this?” Boz asked us.
Then, in a spark of inspiration, Margaret Stewart suggested, “How about, ‘Be Plainspoken’ instead?”
We loved it and adopted it.
Now, many years later, I only remember a couple of the other values we chose. “Be Plainspoken,” however, stuck with me. I have adopted and shared it with every team I have led since.
Plainspokenness is not about being blunt or rude
Being plainspoken is speaking the truth from a place of care and authenticity. It accounts for what is heard, not just what is said. It is about the listener, not the speaker. When you speak plainly, you should do so for those in the audience, not for the one at the podium.
All of us have known people who say, “I am blunt. I just say what I am thinking.” Many times, these individuals are just using the guise of being honest to hurt other people. When someone is blunt, they are speaking to live up to their perceived image of themselves: the person who says it like it is, come what may. But they are rarely doing it with the recipient in mind.
Speaking plainly is a gift when done so with kindness. I remember when my manager told me that my style was not working, and that I struggled to earn trust. He gave me clear examples of how I showed up to others, shared his own challenges, and offered to get me a coach. This conversation was a turning point in my career. It set me on a new trajectory. Because my manager was clear, with an intention of helping me in my career, I was able to hear him and understand the challenges. His feedback gave me the information I needed in order to change and grow.
Plainspokenness is a gift
I have sat through a number of product and business reviews. Often I noticed the convoluted language and concepts many teams use. These presentations tend to feel a bit like a Rorschach test: Information is presented without sufficient context, or without enough conviction and direction to guide the conversation. People see what they want to see in the information that’s given. Everyone leaves, but no one quite agrees on what was said or decided.
Being plainspoken cuts through that. It gives the gift of clarity, and the result is alignment. However, while we want plainspokenness from our peers, colleagues, and teams, we set up situations where there is a cost to speaking honestly and transparently. We criticize rather than seek to understand. This causes others to respond by obfuscating in order to avoid censure. This reticence then causes a doom loop of invasive questions which leads to even more evasiveness.
"Bad news speaks first" is one way of practicing plainspokenness. By being transparent about the good and the bad, rather than hiding what you do wrong, you are ensuring that the audience hears a balanced point of view, not a sales job or a pitch. Speaking honestly about challenges can therefore buy credibility and the gift of help and support, rather than censure and criticism.
Plainspokenness is a culture
Making plainspokenness common practice requires providing a sense of psychological safety, without fear of blowback. If your company incentivizes speaking in riddles, or with a polite “yes” when you actually mean “no”, then that is what you will get more of. If, on the other hand, you encourage dealing with issues directly and speaking the truth with clarity, that will become the cultural norm. Most people don’t hide the truth because they have bad intentions, but rather because they have been trained to believe that this is the better path. They are worried that bad news will cause them to be judged harshly or that senior leaders will be disappointed or upset.
When you are asked to present a project update, calling out what is not working is inherently uncomfortable. We once had a company-level product that was shipping on a tight timeline. All feature teams had to meet the cutoff or miss the release. That would mean the product would disappear for users for weeks, if not months, until we could make the next major update. Our team pulled out all the stops to make that happen, but we were still three weeks behind, which we reported in our update. Nearly all of the other teams claimed they were on track to hit the deadline, but our program managers later found out that they were actually further behind than we were. Few teams wanted to be the long pole, so they stayed quiet, expecting—or perhaps even hoping—that another group would also be delayed. It was like a collective game of chicken. In the end, the whole project was delayed because barely any features made the cutoff, and no one had an accurate picture of what was happening.
Imagine what might have happened if the incentives were different. Imagine if, rather than the threat of being left out of the release, the teams were instead given the support they needed to get their features across the line. What if we had rewarded them based on the bottlenecks they identified for the full product launch, rather than just hitting a target date? The outcome could have been very different.
Plainspokenness is a skill
When learning to speak plainly, start by asking yourself, “What is the most direct and easy-to-understand way I can say this?” Developing plainspokenness means learning to make your message land with clarity. It also means cutting out hedge words and speaking directly to the situation.
These steps will help you speak plainly, even when you are having a difficult conversation. They can be used for giving feedback, project updates, or strategy reviews. Remember, the key is to focus on clarity.
Frame with a concrete example.
“During the last Q&A, Maddy asked you a pointed question. Your answer was confusing, and I had a hard time understanding the crux of your answer.”
State the problem upfront, without accusation or hedging.
“When you speak while thinking aloud, you use a lot of words to get to your point.”
State the impact the issue has on others or on the company.
“This undermines your credibility as a leader.”
Offer help or a mitigation recommendation.
“I benefited a lot from speaker training. If you would like, I can help set you up with someone, or I can practice with you for a few minutes during each of our 1:1s. ”
As with any skill, you get better at this as you practice. Here are three ways you can practice plainspokenness every day.
Every time you compose an email, reread it to see if your message can be more clear and direct. Cut out hedge words and ambiguity. An added benefit to this is that your emails will typically be 30 to 50 percent shorter.
As you prepare your next presentation, go through your slides and state, out loud, what one point you want to get across on each one. Revise each slide to reflect that statement. Many people rely on their voiceovers to get their messages across, but presentations are forwarded, cut, pasted, and shared. Make sure your words speak for themselves.
In meetings, address your point upfront, and then give a clear example.
The reason our team’s value of “Be Plainspoken” sticks with me to this day is that it is something we all aspire to but too often fail to achieve. It is a skill that we all wish we—and others—would exercise, yet we are reluctant to practice it because of the risk it represents. Like any skill, however, this is an ability that we can improve. As you continue to practice, you will gradually begin feeling more comfortable being honest in every conversation—even the difficult ones.
When done right, speaking plainly builds trust and connection. When you say what you mean, and mean what you say, people will see that you are trusting them with the truth. More often than not, they will respond in kind.