A Lesson Leaders Can Learn From a #3 Pencil


What is the secret to great communication?

Years ago, a pencil company, located next to a university, decided to make a donation to the school. The executives wanted to demonstrate good public relations by providing a pencil to every student enrolled at the college. They chose, however, to give a #3 pencil, not a #2 pencil to the students. They had more of them in stock.

When they gave away the pencils—they discovered the students didn’t like them or use them. Within one day, pencils were found in the garbage cans and on the grounds of the campus. No one seemed to want them. When staff members finally asked the students why they didn’t use them, the response was unanimous: the pencils were too hard. To use a number three pencil, a person must push down on the paper so hard, it was not worth it to even write with them. Students went back to using other means to take notes.

Herein lies a truth for leaders. Whatever it is you are attempting to communicate, people won’t use it if it is too hard. If your message becomes complex or too difficult to understand, the average person will mentally check out—even if they were interested in the beginning.

Let me give you an example. I have been in countless meetings where announcements were made about upcoming events or the location of restrooms or how to get involved in some activity on campus. For some reason, the presenter begins to get lost in the details:

“If you want to sign up for the event next week, just go down the third hallway, and go through the wide door on the left. No, make that the right. Then, just go into the room and look for the green table. There should be a clipboard with some sign up sheets. If there isn’t, look for a sign up sheet on the yellow table. If you can’t find one, just grab a piece of paper and write your name and student ID number and leave it by the desk beside the cabinet. Hope to see you there.”

Now—I may be exaggerating a bit—but do you see my point? The message and the action step are so complex, people just give up somewhere in the middle of it. Too confusing. Too many details to remember. They think to themselves:

I don’t want to get involved that bad. It’s too hard.

Just like a number three pencil, people won’t use a message if it is too hard.

Great communicators challenge audiences to achieve difficult goals. The difference is, they simplify their message to be easy to understand and the initial action step they ask for is simple to take. In other words, great communicators keep it simple. 

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