It is not simple or easy to communicate clearly. It is hard work, and harder still in your second language. Your manager is right that it is best if people don't have to repeatedly question you just to find out what you're trying to say. There are several reasons why people don't get your point on the first try. Luckily your manager has identified part of the problem.
Often, smart people will work their way a good way through a problem before they get stuck. When they do get stuck, they make one of two mistakes:
- they ask a highly detailed question that "starts in the middle" of the problem with no background
- they "start at the beginning" and go on for paragraphs of background without getting to the point
I communicate regularly with two individuals at each end of this spectrum. One will appear at my desk asking for something very specific - say, our FedEx account number. It's up to me to ask things like "are you shipping something? what? to whom? Why are you shipping it FedEx?" and so on until I finally understand what's happening. The other will tell me this super long story "so Bill phoned, and he had a problem with .... and I asked him to try ... but that didn't work and then it occurred to me that Steve might know ... but that was an older version ..." (the ... are me falling asleep and missing part of the story) ... "and anyway, that brings me to my question, who do we usually use as a bail bondsman?"
Before you start to talk to anyone, especially your manager, take a moment to ask yourself:
- what do I want from the conversation? Do I have a question that I need a factual answer for, am I getting permission, am I keeping someone up to date on circumstances, reporting a problem that I want to be solved, ... what?
- what does my manager know about this already, from what I've been told by the manager or from what I have already told the manager? Wasting someone's time repeating information they know is at best irritating
- what information do I have that is relevant to what I want? How can I summarize this information?
Then you can start the conversation with the "executive summary" that includes what you want, and the bare minimum information needed to make a decision:
I want to make sure that what I am doing about Bill's problem is ok with you. As you know, he asked for [whatever] and I've looked into it and found a lot of problems. I can list them for you but the bottom line is it will probably take three weeks to make his changes. I was thinking of telling him to use the workaround for now and we can make the changes next month when the interns are here to carry some of the other workload. Do you think that will be ok?
If the manager is familiar with Bill's request, and trusts your estimating skills, you can get an answer right then. Or you may be asked "tell me more about these problems." Again, summarize first.
There are three major ones: the data, the reports, and the security. For the data, [one sentence.] For the reports, [one sentence.] And for security, [one sentence.]
Don't get caught up in a 20 sentence speech about one part before you've even mentioned there are three parts. This is probably what your manager means by clarity of thought. Think things through before you start speaking and be able to summarize things, then provide details when asked to. Don't just launch into minute details about something without any context to put it into.
This is all easier verbally, where you expect some back and forth, than it is in email. The way you typically handle this in email is to start with the most important stuff, and write (organize) in such a way that someone could stop reading at any time and they would not miss anything more important than what they already read. In the old days of newspapers, reporters would write stories and editors would decide to use just the first 9 paragraphs, or just the first 5, or even the first 2. Reporters had to choose the information they presented so that it was a good story no matter where it was cut off. It's not like a novel or an essay where you get to sum it all up at the end and the last paragraph is the most important. Consider using this approach (most important stuff first, ok if some gets cut off) for your emails and your in-person conversations.