Speak Last, Speak Little, Speak Well
What I learned about successful meetings from one of the best Generals in the British Army
The power of effective communication is clear. No matter how refined, insightful, or world-beating your thoughts and ideas are, if you are unable to articulate them effectively, they have limited use.
We all have good ideas, and all want to get them out there. This is entirely the problem. Everyone is speaking or communicating all the time — it is hard to find your voice.
This is, even more, the case in the workplace, as colleagues and co-workers jostle for position. Ruthless ambition often driving a cut-throat environment. In a world of competition where you are your own brand, what you say and how you say it matters.
This is a story about a man who said few words, but with disproportionate effect.
Witnessing a Master at Work
I worked directly for a senior British Army Officer, who will for now remain nameless. I was a junior officer, and fulfilling the role of Adjutant in the Regiment he commanded.
From day one, I was always struck by his ability to walk out of a meeting or a conversation having achieved exactly that he had set out to do. It is not like he was dealing with incompetent people who weren’t able to effectively communicate themselves — they were usually other talented officers of equal or greater rank. Yet he always seemed to come out on top.
After a few weeks, I was able to witness his approach first hand.
It was a planning meeting for a forthcoming deployment to Afghanistan with the 1 Star Brigade Commander. My Commanding Officer, along with the 7 others in the Brigade were arrayed around a table making big decisions about the operation.
What I saw surprised me. Quick-witted, intelligent and articulate as he was, my Commanding Officer just sat there. Big questions were being asked, grand proclamations and considered solutions were flying hither and thither between the assembled senior officers. Yet he said nothing.
This continued for 25 minutes until I witnessed it.
Having said nothing and just sat quietly, the Commander silenced the meeting and asked him directly what he thought about the matter at hand. He spoke three sentences and changed the decision entirely. It was amazing to see the incredulity of the others of his rank, as he deftly swayed the plan, for the benefit of all I may add, with seemingly such little effort.
He proceeded to do the same thing 7 or 8 times for various matters. Speaking just a few times in the 2-hour meeting, he had been the most influential person in the room by a country mile.
So, how did he do it?
Credibility, Preparation, and Listening
I thought long and hard about the approach my boss had taken, and it took some time to really unpack it.
It all boiled down to the fact that he was credible. The Brigade Commander knew he was highly competent — he proved that daily in the way he ran the Regiment. His opinion was valued.
He also prepared thoroughly for every engagement. He conducted deep analysis and armed himself with all the facts he may need. He knew his business.
In the wall of noise in the meeting as each other Commanding Officers proclaimed their wisdom and capability, he sat there and listened.
When he was finally invited to speak, he had processed everything he had heard and formed a considered and informed plan — he just waited to be asked.
Knowing his competence, the Commander obviously wanted his view, and the refined, protein-rich response blew the rest away. Given the talent in the room, this was no mean feat.
He would continue this for the duration of his tenure, to the significant benefit of his team, and the organization. It also worked out well for him — talented and entirely respectable as he was, he was recently promoted to 2 Star, in the rank of Major General, and I expect he will continue his meteoric rise.
What Did I Learn
My Commanding Officer was an incredibly intelligent and talented individual, and I learned a great deal from.
However, when it comes to dealing with people, particularly in group conversations or meetings, I gleaned the following advice from him:
Prepare, Listen, Speak Little, Speak Last, Speak Well.
Next time you have an important discussion or meeting, try the approach. I certainly have, and it has been a key element in achievement in my own career.
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