25 May 2015 15:30 IST

Watch out for your Fog Index!

Keep your speech and writing short and simple. That’s the best way to communicate

At one of the recently established IIMs, I was teaching a full trimester course on Business Communication. I asked the bright MBA students to do an exercise which involved describing oneself. Two simple steps: (a) carefully choosing six words (adjectives or nouns) that best described them and (b) writing a 100-word paragraph using these six words. They would then present this to the whole class. Before they presented, I explained the concept of “Fog Index” to the whole class. Fog index is something that students and professionals from the field of journalism and communication are very familiar with.

Understanding Your Fog Index

The Fog Index is a measure by which you can measure the clarity or difficulty (if not confusion) of your communication. Understandably, the more fog there is around your communication, the less clear it is going to be. First propagated by businessman Robert Gunning, it is calculated by the following simple steps:

Take any sample piece of writing that has a paragraph with 100 words

Count the average number of words in each sentence of the paragraph

Count the number of words with more than one syllable

Leave easy combinations out, like book-keeper. It is not necessary to exclude this, but you can if you want to

Add the two numbers (words in each sentence and number of multi-syllable words) and divide this total by 0.4.

The resultant number constitutes your Fog Index.

The higher the fog index, the lower are the chances that your message is understood the way you intended. Studies in communication clarity have established that while only four per cent of readers will understand a sentence with 27 words or more, 75 per cent of readers will understand a sentence with 17 words or fewer. Ninety five per cent of readers will understand a sentence with eight or less words.

Benchmark for guidance

In a nutshell, if your Fog Index is 13 or more, your communication is bound to be hard to be understood.

For a quick benchmark, here’s something that most of us can relate to. Readers’ Digest has a Fog Index of between 8 and 9. Not surprisingly, it is a reader’s delight and favourite! Time magazine has a Fog Index is around 11. Again, it’s one of the reasons why it is popular with its readers. But hold your breath for a second now! The best-in-class is Churchill. His speeches and writings had a Fog Index of just 3.2!

Precise communication

Now back to the exercise I did with the IIM students. Most of them had a healthy Fog Index between 12 and 15. Their story in 100 words about themselves was very clear, well-articulated and very well understood by their own classmates. I then went on to explain to them the irony of how we work hard to complicate our communication as we gain more vocabulary and experience. They got the message. Communication is not about how flowery our language is, but how clearly it is understood by the intended audience. In most interviews, one of the standard questions posed to the interviewees is to describe themselves, their vision or some such thing. And not surprisingly, we leave the interview panel amused, puzzled or otherwise confused.

Where do things go wrong?

As we leave our B-Schools and T-Schools, one of the things we are taught is to be more social and sophisticated. Out interpretation of this sophistication is to master a language so that we can communicate better. But before we realise what we’re doing, our quest for sophistication begins to take us in a direction of clutter and complicity.

We learn a whole lot of jargon, euphemisms, phrases, slang, colloquial words and clichés. All these have their places in our lives and in where and how we communicate. For example, jargon is very specific to professions. Medicine, engineering, information technology, construction, military and many others have jargon that only those engaged in the professions can understand and appreciate. Outside of the profession, using them leads to severe Fog Index!

Communication gap is a trap we fall into:

Even in using simple language, a word like “round” has as many as over 70 meanings depending on the context in which the word is used. I have a humorous way to convey this in my leadership workshops. I tell the leaders that very often there is such a large communication gap between what leaders say and what their employees understand that things get done very well! It is estimated that there are at least 500 frequently used words in English that have more than 23 different meanings each. And again, by placing the word “only” in different places in a sentence, we can obtain 20 different interpretations of just that one sentence.

So, interestingly enough, mastery of communication has a lot to do with the simplicity. What is then a way out to communicate effectively and stay clear of a severe Fog Index? Here are some simple suggestions for practice.

Keep sentences simple and short, not complex whether your speak or write

Use familiar words, preferably

Use action verbs where possible

Write as you would talk (provided your talking style is simple!)

Use terms that readers or listeners can visualise

Tie in with your listeners’ or readers’ experience or background where possible

Make full use of variety, not vanity

Write or speak to express, not necessarily to impress!

Communication is more often than not 90 per cent simplicity and sincerity and 10 per cent your master vocabulary.

So keep a watch on your Fog Index every time you speak to someone or write to someone. Or risk being misunderstood. The choice is yours really.

To read more from the From the Coach section, click here .