The lesson here is delightfully summed up by Albert Einstein:
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Many of my clients face this same challenge. Even if they want to communicate an innovative and relevant concept (and have the best of intentions), they begin to wander verbally, adding in extraneous details and leaping off onto multiple tangents. The people trying to follow that chaotic, runaway-train of logic inevitably feel confused, bored or just plain annoyed. That’s a problem for two reasons. First, a great idea can get completely lost in translation. And second, the awkward interactions can damage relationships and reputations.
It doesn’t take a genius to see how rambling, unfocused communications can take a serious toll on otherwise-promising careers. And for that matter, they don’t win you any awards in your relationships with friends and family either. A bonus tip: you’re welcome.
Helping others get to the point
So what can you do to help employees, direct reports or even peers who tend to wander when communicating?
Ask for permission to share your insights.
It could be as simple as kindly saying, “May I give you some feedback?”
Explain your observations with a simple statement.
Refine and rehearse your comments in advance to ensure they sound respectful rather than judgmental. Be direct but gentle.
“I notice we routinely get into long, drawn-out conversations. This pattern of communication doesn’t work well for me; I prefer the bottom line first and not so many details.”
“It feels like we get into the weeds quite a bit when we talk. I really want to listen, but it’s hard to follow when I can’t identify your main message.”
“It seems like there are many different components here. Could you clarify the primary issue?”
Streamlining your own communications
What if an honest assessment reveals that (gasp!) you might be the guilty party—the one who gets wound up selling an idea and can’t quite cut to the chase? Here are a few strategies to help you change your communication patterns, increase your credibility, and rehab any potentially tarnished relationships.
Organize your message.
Think about your conversations in the shape of a triangle. Start at the top, and make your main point first. Then add layers of detail, but only as needed. This may initially feel uncomfortable, since you might be in the habit of sharing information using an upside-down-triangle model. Saving the main point until the very end is fine for storytelling and punch-lines in jokes, but your audience in a business setting will likely get bored and tune you out before you ever get there.
With the triangle approach, you give your listeners a reason to be interested from the very beginning. What are you asking for? What are you trying to prove? What does it mean for them? Your main message (the bottom line) is like the headline that draws them in and provides them with the context needed to process the details that follow. It’s like giving them the blueprint to the house before you start delivering all of the lumber: you’re arming them with the mental framework needed to begin envisioning how everything will fit together.
Practice in advance.
Write down the way you want to communicate your idea or proposal. Looking at the words on paper will help you to analyze them more thoroughly. Does it really follow the triangle format? Is your argument clear and concise? Does it demonstrate that you understand their needs and points of view? Practice reading it out loud. Tighten it. Refine it. Repeat. Record it and listen back if that helps. The goal is to sound smooth and natural. (Just stop before you venture into the realm of canned and over-rehearsed.)
Despite all of Einstein’s vast stores of knowledge about physics and science, he was smart enough to know that simplicity is still the key to effective communications. To get ahead, you’ve got to get to the point!
Ever had one of those cut-to-the-chase, screaming-inside moments with a verbally rambling co-worker? Please share your experiences and any additional suggestions.
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Photo: By InformiguelCarreño (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons