The amount of information we encounter both daily and annually is staggering.
Over 60,000 academic journals are publishing numerous additions every day, and it’s estimated that about one million new books are published every year.
That’s a lot of people trying to get their point across, and they are usually doing so with far more words than necessary.
This proliferation of data not only leads to information overload but also shortens our attention span and increases anxiety as we rush to figure out what messages we need to prioritize.
What’s worse is that not only are we long-winded, but we also have a tendency to present information we are most passionate about in rapid-fire fashion which further degrades learning, retention and can even corrode levels of likability, trust, and respect.
Enter the value of conciseness!
A little bit remembered is better than a lot easily forgotten. Yet, we all know the people in our lives who are convinced that if they keep talking, they will be taken more seriously or have a higher likelihood of getting their point across.
Sometimes we are “those people,” and I certainly am included in this as well.
When messaging is concise, it is easier to learn and apply. When people are concise, they come off as more knowledgeable, thoughtful, and professional.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt knocked it out of the park when offered the following advice for any public speaker, “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”
But how do we do it?
How can we improve our communication quality when time is at a premium and when there is so much competition for attention?
These three steps will help…
Step 1: Identify The Root of The Problem
All of the strategies in the world will not undo a lack of self-awareness.
The causes for talking too much are legion and can’t be covered in one post, but chief amongst them include:
- Our desire for people to see us as intelligent
- Our struggles with organizing and prioritizing our thoughts
- Our innate desire for attention and respect
- Our desire to be liked and to feel like part of a group
- Our desire to share our passion for a particular subject
- Believing the more we talk, the more value we are providing others
- Nerves, anxiety and/or excitement
- Ignorance of basic social cues
To improve here, it can help to record yourself during interactions and rank the level of your long-windedness from 1-10, with one being ‘extremely concise’ and ten being ‘I barely letting the other person speak.’
Once you have given yourself a score, turn the recording to a trusted colleague or, better yet, a non-biased third party and see what they say.
An “ideal score” will be dependent on context as well as an established baseline, but aim for a score of somewhere between 3-5 to start.
Step 2: Think of a Billboard
Whether you’re a loyal employee meeting with your boss about an unexpected pay cut, a surgeon explaining a complicated medical procedure to a patient, or a coach detailing “the why” of a drill to an athlete, you want to lean on being detailed yet concise.
The key term here is message prioritization!
At most, you’re going to get about 5-8s to set the anchor for the rest of the dialogue between you and your audience. This is the same amount of time it takes for you to read a billboard that you’ve been approaching while driving on the interstate.
Imagine you’re driving 75mph (~120km/h), and you’re on a long stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere. You see a billboard up ahead, and for a while, it’s too far to make out, but as you edge closer, you see the big block letters, an image, and eventually, you make out the full message.
The encounter doesn’t take long, space is limited, and you can’ take your eyes off the road for an extended period; advertisers know this. They have no time or money to waste, so they need to hook you in a way that’s to the point and understandable; this should be your goal as well.
Before every meeting, every turn to speak, consider how you would take what you want to say, and then think the words or phrasing you’d lead with if it had to fit on a billboard.
Reduce your tendency to think out loud.
Reduce your tendency to fill everything with a backstory.
Reduce your reliance on qualifiers (e.g., “I know you likely don’t want to hear this,” “I hope this doesn’t come across as arrogant but…”)
Of course, I’m not suggesting you speaking in fortune cookie’esque riddles or rhymes in perpetuity, but instead just to set the anchor. Think of it as an advanced framework to let the listener know how they should structure how they receive any messages that are to follow
In short, never bury the lede. Get to the point by saying what is most relevant to the situation, the other person, or the moment first- then follow up if necessary.
*Disclaimer: While the general KISS principle (Keep It Short and Simple) holds true in most situations, there are times when educators must elaborate. Variation always occurs in context. That said, most people or instructors don’t struggle with being long-winded.
3: Take a Moment to Structure Your Content
Communication is not a two-way street. It is an interstate system. Without a map or GPS, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to arrive at our desired destination on time.
What does this mean?
It means that part of conciseness is thinking through the structure of what you want to say. This includes everything from topic selection, key elements or “themes,” and organizing them in a topical, logical, or chronological sequence.
For example, say a good friend asks you to provide them with feedback from a presentation they’ve given recently.
They were somewhat vague in their request but were explicitly worried about how they “came across” and if it seemed engaging.
You have their slides, and you’ve intently watched the entire thing from start to finish taking notes as you go.
As opposed to trying to cover every single bullet point in one large email that skips around and follows no central theme other than “feedback,” it would be far more helpful to provide topical feedback by saying something along the lines of the following:
“Hey Alena, I recently finished watching your talk and have provided structured feedback across three key themes: the material presented, the design of the slides themselves, and your verbal delivery of the material.
Additionally, I have limited my feedback across those themes to no more than 3-4 of what I deemed to be the most significant findings or issues.”
The above example is helpful because there’s a stark difference between information dumped on you vs. information delivered in a digestible fashion.
After all, there’s a reason why most authors and screenwriters stick to a three-act structure when writing a story. As legendary screenwriter Robert Mckee has stated, “stories are the currency of human relationships.”
Long lists do nothing but dilute each item’s value. When you op to take a moment to create structure around your thoughts, it helps listeners follow your point, makes your message more cohesive, and improves retention for both parties.
Whether you’re merely trying to write better emails, land more speaking opportunities, or improve your day to day interactions with those you lead, learning how to be more concise will give you an edge over your competition.
Keeping the three tips provided in this post in mind is a great place to begin, but constant practice and evaluation is the best long-term strategy for improvement.
Remember to be mindful of your tendencies, never bury the lede, and consider how the information you want to deliver can be structured or “chunked” together to make it more digestible.
Have a strategy you’d like to add? Be sure to comment below.