Say More By Saying Less

Many promising executives struggle with conciseness and verbal impact when they move into strategic roles. These practical tips will ease those communication challenges.

Think before you speak

This is actually a warning: ‘Don’t make it up as you go along.’ A key to being concise is knowing when to stop. If you think about your message before you speak — the main points you want to make — you will have a better chance of knowing when to stop talking.

If you improvise you could end up being eloquent, but you run the risk of babbling, of going on too long while searching for agreement or validation from your audience. That can be embarrassing and damage your credibility. So think first.

‘What do they need to know?’, not ‘What do I know?’

Succeed by putting your audience first. Why does the audience want to hear about this? What are they expecting and what will be helpful? How can you meet or exceed those expectations? With these questions you are letting the audience drive your preparation, and that is the point. 

This focus on the audience can be a challenge for those who have risen on the strength of their technical skills. They are expected to have a broad strategic perspective in their new positions, but there is a lingering temptation to do a deep-dive back into their areas of expertise. It can be hard to let go of that sense of being the ‘expert’. Hence the tip: make it about the audience, not about yourself.

Start high-level and have detail ready

A key obstacle on the road to conciseness is the tendency to offer too much detail. One way to guard against this is to organise your thoughts into ‘key concepts’ and ‘support’. This ‘support’ typically consists of additional explanation, visual aids, and examples.

Why break out your material this way? Because many times the detail is not necessary: the audience may not need it or be interested. And if you offer detail that is not wanted you may irritate people. This can happen when presenting to senior leaders: they may be looking for the big picture or certain details, but they don’t want to hear chapter-and-verse on your topic… they just don’t have the time or the bandwidth. So hold off on detail unless it is needed.

Three Key Points

Another obstacle to conciseness is the tendency to go off on tangents, to begin on Topic A and somehow end up discussing unrelated Topic D. So organise your thoughts into key points, usually no more than three. This gives you a structure to work with, so your remarks will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you find yourself wandering from your key points you are probably off on a tangent.

The important thing is to have a structure. We crave structure when we listen: we want the speaker to organise things so they will be easy to understand and remember. Just as chapter headings and paragraphs help us understand a book, structure helps us understand a presentation. Structure is like a GPS, letting you know when you are on track and when you’ve veered off-course.

Silence as ‘white space’

If you work in business you may have watched one or two slide presentations over the years. Which slides were easier to understand: those that were chock-full of text or those with few words and lots of white space? The slides with the white space, right? The white space made the message stand out.

Silence works in a similar way with the spoken word: it allows the message to stand out. But many people fill every available moment with words when speaking: they may be trying to cram as much information as possible into the available time, or they may be ‘afraid’ of silence and scrambling to avoid that discomfort by filling the available time with words. Don’t be afraid of a little silence.

The confidence to stop talking

Some people chatter when they are nervous: they talk too fast, they run sentences together, they may even have trouble breathing. In public speaking we tend to associate fast, fragmented speech and ‘filling the silence’ with nervousness and a lack of confidence.

So it stands to reason that the opposite behaviors can convey calmness and confidence. Speaking slowly, pausing occasionally, and allowing for silence can do great things for your image as a calm and confident executive. This is about steady versus anxious energy, about not appearing to try too hard. Have the confidence to make your point and then stop talking.

Airtime: Choose Quality over Quantity

Finally, some people believe their impact as leaders is a function of airtime: the longer they speak, the more impact they will have. That is just wrong: impact depends on how clearly and effectively we communicate, not on how much. Try saying more by saying less.

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