by: Joe McCormack
It can be tricky to tell people that they talk too much. And in cases where the offender is someone more powerful, like a senior executive or important customer, it can be downright risky. As a result, many “victims” have been suffering in silence for years in meetings that never end or conversations that drain the life out of them. As the saying goes, a rich man’s jokes are always funny.
How do you put an end to this agony? There’s no instant fix, but in addition to understanding why some people go on, and on, and on… there is a strategic approach you can use to spare yourself and everyone around you. While it shouldn’t be used all the time, it can help you build stronger relationships by moving from one-sided monologues to conversations.
First, more on why leaders can be long-winded. Executives sometimes find it hard to stop monopolizing a discussion because delivering a monologue feels so good. As a study by Harvard University researchers revealed, talking so much triggers a sensation of reward similar to that of sex, money, or food. It’s a power kick for big talkers to grab the mic — and hard for listeners to wrestle it from them once they’ve fallen in love with the sound of their own voice.
There are other reasons successful professionals tend to ramble. Sometimes they suffer from performance anxiety. They feel they have to put on a show. Or they may underestimate how busy and attention-starved their listeners are. The average attention span, they may not be aware, is now under 10 seconds.
So what to do? Here are some ways to counteract overtalking — without getting fired or losing a big account.
Diagnose the problem. Many senior leaders are long-winded in some situations and not others. Does your boss tend to deliver an Oscar acceptance speech only when big clients come to the office and meet you in the conference room? Will your biggest client complain for hours about his divorce case over lunch, but not if he stops by the office? Are management monologues more likely to occur when there’s no formal agenda, if you’re on a phone call with no time constraints, or when no one asks any questions?
Take note of when your culprit tends to dominate the conversation so you can change the setting or circumstances. All of these clues can indicate what the core problem is — and help you devise a plan of attack.
Identify your approach. There are a few different methods to help someone be more succinct. Before you choose one, consider the payoff to the offender. Perhaps he or she will benefit from a more productive team, greater collaboration, faster results, less frustration, fewer misunderstandings, or a savings of time. Once you’ve honed in on a benefit, consider how direct you should be. If your target is not good at picking up cues that listeners are getting bored, you may need to be direct. Other excessive talkers may require a more diplomatic approach.
A more direct approach works well when you have a strong enough relationship with the culprit to be brutally honest. Come prepared with a point — and a payoff — and be brief.
When Mitch Golub, the president of Cars.com, realized his team couldn’t stand working for a top client because meetings and calls dragged on so long, he decided the situation was so critical he had to raise the topic of brevity to maintain the partnership. He took the straightforward approach and said, “You’re an important client, but we are having trouble getting people on our team to work with you.” Golub shared a number of examples of how the client’s lack of focus was preventing his employees from delivering results. Afterward, the client thanked him — and did cut to the chase more. Golub is glad he took the risk. “Today, our relationship has never been better,” he says.
Regardless of whether you feel you can be brutally honest, you can explain and model the many benefits executives gain when they embrace brevity — a new business essential in an attention-starved economy.
Brian Ames, vice president, employee communications at The Boeing Co., recommends connecting brevity to a key business issue like credibility or leadership development and waging “a running battle against jargon.” Frame the issue as one that can help transform the corporate culture and improve the vendor relationship. Brevity is, in fact, a shift of thinking and acting for leaders that delivers tangible results immediately. A key measure of your success at this, says Ames, “is whether the end user of the message feels respected or not.”
You can also remind your listener that it is challenging to communicate in an information-driven economy: People are exhausted. They check their smartphones more than 100 times a day, and get interrupted six to seven times an hour. They’re at the saturation point and can’t take in much more information. The more we talk, the less they hear.
Everyone needs to adapt when the issue is framed as a significant social change. Brevity is a prime area of improvement for senior executives and people in a position of authority.
Reinforce brevity. Many leaders get better at being clear and concise once they work on it, then fall back into bad habits.
To keep them from losing ground, use some practical techniques to set limits or expectations. A junior employee might say to a boss, “I know your time is valuable. Let’s keep this to five minutes.” Another approach that works: “I’d like talk with you about the Jones account. I’ve prepared a three-bullet-point agenda. Could we discuss each of these items for five minutes?” On a conference call with a client, you might mention early, “I’ve got a hard stop at noon. Is there anything you’d like to tackle right away?”
I’d also suggest embracing brevity in your meetings by using tighter agendas and shortening or eliminating PowerPoint presentations to foster better, more concise conversations. In other words, personally commit to being brief as well to set an example. It can help you spread the challenge of being better by being brief.
About the Author
Joe McCormack is founder and Managing Director of the Sheffield Company, an award-winning boutique agency, and in 2013 founded The Brief Lab to counsel military leaders and senior executives on key messaging and lean communication. His recent book Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less(Wiley, February 2014) tackles the timeliness of the ‘less is more’ mandate.
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