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Why using fewer words can make you a more impactful leader

My client, let's call him Walter, won't stop talking. In my coaching sessions with him, it's always difficult to get a word in. Yet despite admitting he knows this is his habit, Walter doesn't seem to be conscious of when it's happening.

"You're doing it again," I finally said last week after Walter took a full six minutes to answer the simple question I'd posed at the beginning of the session. "Oh really?" he replied, locking eyes with me for the first time since he logged onto zoom ten minutes prior. "I guess I'm just trying to figure out the answer out loud, and I don't know how to do that without talking out my thoughts."

Walter desperately wants to be a more effective communicator. The feedback from his manager and colleagues is that he is long-winded— often continuing for many minutes past a meeting's conclusion to make his point. He also fails to summarize his key messages quickly and concisely when presenting in front of the time-strapped senior executives of his company.

He's not alone in struggling to master this skill. Many of the senior leaders I coach struggle to communicate powerfully and concise in a real-time way in our coaching sessions and other meetings. They also often aren't aware that a) they're taking up so much air space or b) how to tighten up their verbal speech to deliver the essence of what they need to say.

The importance of concise communication Research shows that we're often a poor judge of how long a conversation should last and whether or not our audience wants us to wrap up or keep going. The tendency to keep talking can be a product of the discomfort many feel with silence or insecurity, driving a need to impress our conversation partner. And talking about ourselves has been shown to lead to activity in the brain's reward center, making it even more dangerous to determine when we're oversharing.

In coaching, we call this skill bottom-lining: The ability to say what you need to say in a crisp, efficient five to seven words. This skill is critical precisely because it asks leaders to organize their thoughts ahead of time and deliver them with confidence in a sparse, specific manner. It also requires that leaders stop speaking after they've made their point and check in with their audience. They need to get comfortable with silence instead of continuing to fill space and overtalk.

With the increasing shift to virtual communications in the past years, this skill has never been more essential. The tools and tips below are helpful to consider if you are looking to improve your ability to bottom-line and tighten up your verbal communications:

Tune into your verbal patterns Start by conducting an audit of your spoken communication patterns: Do you speak on and on when someone asks you a question? Do you bury the lead or provide too much-supporting data/stories instead of giving a high-level answer? Practice timing yourself to determine the average length of your response, or watch a video of yourself in a meeting to notice how many words you typically use. You can also ask someone close to you—a peer, teammate, or family member—to get a sense of how likely you are to over-answer.

Determine what you actually need to say To start bottom-lining, Walter realized he needed to slow down and pause before he spoke to decide what needed to be said ahead of time. As his speech slowed, he noticed that the number of words he used decreased by roughly 50%. Even more surprising, his audience started visibly leaning forward in anticipation of his message as he paused to collect his thoughts rather than tuning out after he'd gone into unnecessary detail.

Practice the pause Pauses are an effective method for creating an attentive audience, precisely because they bring your listeners to attention and allow you to check in and read the room. After you speak your first sentence, force yourself to stop and in with your audience: Are the listeners still with you? What do you need to communicate now? Do you even need to keep speaking?

Spend more time in listening mode According to Daniel Pink in To Sell Is Human, what most people call listening isn't listening at all. What they are is waiting for our turn to speak. In your next meeting, try spending 70% of your time in listening mode and only 30% of it speaking. When it's your turn to speak, try asking purposeful, short, bottom-lined questions to encourage participants to come to their own conclusions. Questions like: What are we missing? What's most important? And what are our next steps?

Train your team to bottom-line If you have long-winded colleagues, train them in this skill of speaking crisply to the essence of what needs to be spoken. If someone gets trapped in storytelling, describing the play-by-play, Make it clear to them that you'll be gently interrupting to ask them for the bottom-line to keep the conversation moving.

Walter's work to notice his habit and practice this new skill is still in progress. Most recently, he recruited two members of his team to flash a yellow post-it notes every time he starts to run on in their weekly meeting, which helps him notice his tendency to dominate the floor.

He also started to script out the single most crucial phrase he needed to say in front of his senior leaders to force him to deliver the message intentionally before he is tempted to launch into a larger or superfluous explanation. His managers and team appreciate his transparent efforts to improve in this area, even if it may take him months to become known as a powerfully crisp verbal communicator.


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