It happens a lot. You ask a question or make a comment and then are stuck listening to the person respond for the next 10 minutes. They may answer a question you haven’t asked, provide extraneous information, or offer an overly detailed and unnecessary example. Your eyes glaze over. Your mind wanders. If it’s in a meeting, other participants start to look away. It’s easy to get bored or annoyed with the person who is not concise.
Sometimes you manage to get a word in! They might even listen. And then they remember something they forgot to include and a few minutes later (since they are still talking,) people are thinking of ways to end the conversation and move on to other things that need to get done.
Their emails are lengthy letters filled with narrative and examples. You might have expected a few lines, but what you often get is a chapter. You end up skimming the material – looking for the specific response or information promised in the subject line.
Most people find this behavior annoying and I am often called in to listen to the complaints and then I am asked if I can ‘fix’ the offender. I don’t actually ‘fix’ people is my predictable response. So then I’m asked ‘How can I get this person to be more concise?’
When Succinct is Suitable
In order for things to improve, the person who is wordy and rambling needs to be completely aware of the problem and motivated to improve in this area of their communication. Sometimes, I meet with a client and find that the concern has not been well articulated with examples of both what has transpired as well as what is preferred and expected.
So here is the good news: you can ask a different question and get a better answer.
If it’s a simple preference that one person has, it’s unlikely to get much attention. However, if it is a value held by the team (or even better, the workplace), the chances are better that you may see progress because more people will take action to support an organizational value.
Focus on the Listener/Receiver
Rather than ask ‘what do I want to say?’ ask ‘what do people want to hear?’ Once you focus on the listener/receiver of the message, a framework is created for what needs to be said to make sure the message lands well. Anything that doesn’t address what the listener needs is extraneous.
Call Out Meeting Monopolizers
No one needs to step into every interaction with editing another person in mind but if you are running a meeting, you are the one that sets the tone. If someone is going on and on and on – you can jump in and say something like “It doesn’t sound like everybody needs this level of detail. Let’s make it a point to stick the agenda and share the bottom line on this — which is really what we all want to know.’ You can be kind. You can be both kind AND firm. After hearing this a few times, most people work to be more concise.
End Meetings Early/Keep Email Short
Filling every minute of every meeting misses the chance to show people that you are curating what is most important. Time in meetings should be used well. Ending early shows people that you value being concise.
Create and Use Style Standards
Why do most organizations have standards for their logo? They want a specific color and a particular font because it serves as a guide and sets the standard for consistency. You can also set an expectation with your employees (and yourself) on concise communication. Important standards can be communicated, such as:
- Emails to each other should be 250 words or less.
- Reports should begin with an overview.
- The team will address the items on the meeting agenda.
Standards describe what to aim for rather than what to avoid. These are not hard and faster rules set in stone. While it’s true that there will be exceptions, they should be rare.
When All Else Fails
Even the best culture of communication won’t always influence the worst offenders. If you’ve tried the suggestions I’ve outlined above and still run into trouble, there is something we can all do:
Make the assumption that you probably over-talk. Tell the people on your team that they too, should make that assumption about themselves. The next time you get the feeling that you are over-talking – stop talking and see what happens.
What often happens is that people will ask “What were you saying?” Then you can finish your thought – and then stop talking. If no one asks what you were saying – it may be that they had stopped listening! Ouch.
Some people will explain that the reason they over-talk is that they are thinking out loud. This is challenging because sometimes it can take some time to organize your thoughts into a more cogent message. Perhaps if you actually told them you wanted to ‘think out loud for a minute’ they would be more patient and understanding while you do – because you are telling them it’s not a concise message yet. Your credibility isn’t at risk while you ramble. However, it reflects better on you if you think first and then speak succinctly.
Crisp, succinct oral and written communication comes across as more confident. Rambling doesn’t. If you want people to pay attention, act as your own editor before you deliver your message. They will thank you – and they will pay attention to your communication.