It’s tough to listen when you just want someone to get to the point.
People talk too much for many reasons: nerves, wanting to be recognized or heard, wanting to look knowledgable or sometimes even because they enjoy talking, have lots of thoughts in their head and want to get them out. If you are with friends in a restaurant and they enjoy your style – who cares? But in the office talking too much will work against you because you’ll suck up other people’s time which they will, eventually, resent.
It’s very important to match your style to your audience – whether you are presenting to 1000 people or talking with 1. But it is much harder to be concise than to let your thoughts flow. It is much harder to make a 3 minute presentation that a 10 minute one. It takes discipline and a great deal more preparation.
Being concise is a skill you can learn, like any other skill or language. It takes work, and practice, but once you learn it it is very powerful.
First, consider Powerpoint and Word. In Powerpoint you write down bullets. Short, smart, impactful bullets. In Word you write many sentences, elaborating and expounding on your thoughts.
To teach yourself to present concise ideas start by preparing your bullet points before a discussion. You’re going into a one-on-one with your boss and you know you need to make some points, and discuss some issues. Prepare by making your bullet point list (preferably 3 or less, no more than 5). Then, when you are in the discussion stick to your points. Don’t run on about one or another, make yourself concisely state your issue/point of view and stop.
If you do this every time before you go into a meeting then the next step is to learn to do it on the fly. You’re in a discussion, you know you have a point you want to make, take a deep breath, count to 5, or 10, focus your mind to only the essential of what you want to say and state 1-3 short points, not an essay. Then be quiet and pause for clarifying questions – which gives you the opportunity to crisply expand your thoughts in response.
It is also important to watch your audience carefully. Are they truly with you or zoning out and politely nodding? If you talk more than a minute, pause and check in with the person you are talking with. Ask an open ended question like “what are the holes in what I’m saying” not a closed question like “make sense?” to which yes is the polite, but meaningless, answer.
With some people you may find having a piece of paper and drawing a picture of your idea, or your key points, may help. Many people are more visual than verbal. Sitting with a large pad and jotting down your points together can help you focus and not ramble on. This physical prop can also help you listen better. Writing down what the other person is saying will help you focus on their ideas instead of simply thinking about your response before they have finished.
Finally, always be aware of time. It amazes me when I meet with people and they talk for 10 or 15 minutes about themselves, what they want to tell me etc. without noticing how long they are talking, especially if we only have 30 minutes! If you need to catch up socially first then schedule that into your meeting time; if you simply need a focused conversation schedule 30 minutes and be disciplined about it. One prop is to wear a watch and put it on the table if you need to learn this. Most people will support you if you are straightforward about why you are watching the time. And if you are given 1.5 hours and your executives, or board, want a discussion don’t ramble on for an hour about generalities (as I recently experienced in a board meeting). Talk for 15 minutes max and then figure out how to make your discussion interactive.
The exception to this, of course, is if you are telling a story or you have been asked to make a speech on a topic. Whether that story is professional, or personal, if you have permission from your listeners to tell a story then take your time. Expound, embellish because that is part of the pleasure for the listener and part of your persuasive power to build the picture in your audience’s minds.
If you are naturally loquacious being concise is a hard change to make but it is an incredibly powerful skill for your career and it can be learned. If you want outside help join something like ToastMasters, or a competitive debate club. Nothing focuses the mind like competition.
Photo: Dante’s Barque, Venice © 2018 Penny Herscher