Say More by Saying Less — 1
This is the first of two posts that address an empathy-related challenge many executives face when they enter the C-suite: how to be more concise. These practical suggestions will help make you sharper and more impactful in your leadership communication.
Tips for Concise Speaking
Think about your message before you speak
This is actually a warning: ‘Don’t make it up as you go along.’ Why not? A fundamental characteristic of being concise is knowing when to stop talking. If you think about your message before you begin to speak — if you decide beforehand the point or points you want to make — you will have a better chance of knowing precisely when to stop.
If you improvise — making it up as you go along — you may end up being eloquent, but you also run the risk of babbling, of going on too long while searching for agreement or validation from your audience. That can be embarrassing and could damage your credibility. So although this may seem to be an obvious tip, it is important: think before you speak so you’ll have a better sense of when to stop.
‘What do they need to know?’, not ‘How much do I know?’
This is about succeeding by putting your audience first. Imagine that someone invites you to make a 15-minute presentation on the place you grew up. One easy way to approach this would be to list the things you would like to share about your hometown, organize those thoughts in some fashion, and then figure out how to shoehorn all of that into 15 minutes while making it engaging and interesting.
That is a challenging task and it could turn out to be a great presentation. But here’s the catch: so far this process has been all about you and what you want to share, not about your audience and what they want or need to know.
I encourage you to turn this around: Why does the audience want to hear about this? What are they expecting and what will be helpful for them? How can I meet or exceed those expectations in 15 minutes? With these questions you are consciously letting the audience drive your preparation, and that is the point. Focusing on the audience makes conciseness easier: once you have addressed their needs you can stop talking.
This focus on the audience can be a challenge for people who have risen to leadership positions on the strength of their technical or specialized skills. They are expected to have a broader, more strategic perspective in their new positions, but there is often a lingering temptation to do a deep-dive back into their own areas of expertise. As we know, it can be hard to let go of that comforting sense of being ‘the expert’. So the tip is this: learn to make the presentation about the audience, not about you.
Start high-level and have the detail ready
A big obstacle on the road to conciseness is the tendency to offer too much detail. An effective way to guard against this is to organize your material and remarks into ‘key concepts’ and ‘support’. This ‘support’ typically consists of additional explanation, visual aids, and examples.
Why is it important to break out your material this way? Because many times the supporting detail is simply not necessary: your audience may not need it, or may not be interested. And if you offer detail that is not wanted or needed you run the risk of irritating people. This can easily happen when presenting to senior leaders: they may be looking for the big-picture perspective or be interested in 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 if you find yourself in a situation like this — presenting to a board or a gathering of senior leaders, for example — assume that they will want to begin at the ‘high-level’, and then have detailed explanations and examples ready in case they need them or ask for them. This gives you the flexibility to be concise: you are adapting to their needs and not simply downloading everything you know about the issue.