A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.
—Winston S. Churchill
In the scenario above, you are most likely unaware of the meandering journey you just took. It likely made sense in your mind and your stream-of-consciousness speech had a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, your audience and fellow panelists are left asking “What’s your point?”
We do this all of the time. It is pretty easy to see when you’re standing in front of a group. The bigger problem is the countless conversations happening more intimately. Pointless blathering that poses as meaningful conversation permeates our daily interactions. The smaller stakes reduce the downside impact of pointlessness but the problems remain: missed opportunities to say something meaningful and/or the waste of someone’s time and attention.
The truly sad part of this is that you do have something important to say. We all do. Our perspectives are unique in this world. Our experiences are unique. We bring that uniqueness to every interaction and the world deserves to understand our point-of-view. We don’t need to epitomize heavenly eloquence but we owe it to the people around us to get better at making our point. We deserve, and they deserve, our best efforts to be better communicators.
A recent panel discussion gave me the opportunity to observe some interesting communication dynamics and identify some ways we can all improve in our conversations with those around us. From that experience, I decided to create my “10 Ways to Suck Less When You Speak” list:
- Be Prepared. Mark Twain once said that “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Obviously, we can’t be prepared for every conversational situation but we can be ready for meetings, calls, and topical discussions. A simple list of 2-3 key points and/or objectives can go a long way to making the conversation more meaningful.
- Be Concise. The Churchill quotation at the top of this post captures it nicely. What is the shortest path to making your point? An economy of words implies command of your subject matter and clarity of thinking. You can always add more words later on but you can never take them away.
- Be Interesting. Any point of view is made more powerful by being delivered in an interesting fashion. Some people are good story tellers. I personally find it easier to reference others who are far more brilliant than I. There are plenty of anecdotes, movies, songs, poems, articles, and other pieces of brilliance out there to support any point you want to make. Use them.
- Be Expressive. This is the sister to #3 above. Intonation, facial expressions, and colorful language make you more engaging and interesting. Efforts to be expressive support your point by making you and your message real to your audience.
- Be Empathetic. One of the biggest mistakes people make when talking to others is focusing on their own side of the conversation and losing track of what’s happening on the other side. If you want to engage someone with your message, you need to be tuned-in to what they are thinking, feeling, and conveying. So often we hear their words but don’t listen. Understand that this is happening on the other end as well. When you demonstrate your empathy, it draws the other person in and they seek to understand. This also applies to recognizing when you lose people while you are talking. Read the signs.
- Be Patient. We often tend to blather when speaking because we are afraid that we might not get to finish our thought or that we might forget our point. In this case, we “machine gun” every random thought directly at the audience and our message becomes frenetic. Patience gives us the opportunity for the discussion to unfold and allows us to remain calm enough to deliver our message at a measured, digestible pace. It also helps us remember our key points because we are more relaxed.
- Be Flexible. The best communication evolves with the conversation. There are times to stay on point and then there are moments that something more compelling happens in a new conversational direction. You can often make your best point by allowing someone to take you in a direction that makes it all more meaningful to them.
- Be Intentional. Taking a free ranging verbal journey is very easy for us. To focus our message and make our point, we must be intentional in returning to the original path and disciplining ourselves to repeat as necessary. Being intentional isn’t inflexibility; it is understanding our objective and working our plan.
- Be Respectful. See yourself as a steward of the other person’s time. They are not there as a release valve for your prattle. When you respect another person’s time, you naturally seek to minimize your impact on it and work to bring value for their investment. Are you giving them all that you can for their investment of time and attention?
- Be Inviting. Finally, invite your audience to contribute. The best conversation is an exchange of meaningful ideas. Seeking the input of your audience brings them along with you, forces them to pay attention to your message, and helps you gauge their level of interest and engagement. Your odds of making an impact (and your point) will be much greater if you are able to pull your audience into the discussion.
No, not every conversation needs to be profound. But our days are full of opportunities to be better communicators. Like it or not, we are judged by our ability to articulate thoughts and ideas. Putting the effort into improving your communications skills will make you more effective, improve your interactions with other people, and deepen your thinking on the topics you find most interesting.