You've Got 8 Seconds
Communication Secrets for a Distracted World
Author: Paul Hellman
Pub Date: April 2017
Print Edition: $17.95
Print ISBN: 9780814438305
Page Count: 208
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814438312
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“In Maine we have a saying that there’s no point in speaking unless you can improve on silence.” —Edmund Muskie
# Don't over-salt.
Detail is like salt. You can always add more. (If others want more, they'll ask questions.) But once in, you can't take it out.
Consider what your audience wants to know—but also, and every bit as important, what they don't because they've got no time, no interest, they're preoccupied with 10,000 other things, and they'd gladly pay you a boatload of money if you simply didn't tell them.
“Describe yourself,” one CEO asks job applicants, “in 3 words or less.”
What would you say? Probably not, “Wordy. And repetitive.”
But how focused are you?
“You seem to have 29 ideas at once,” an exec told one of his managers. “And I feel like I'm hearing them all, right this minute.”
Ever gotten feedback like that?
I work with several companies where executives, after taking a communication assessment, will gladly tell you their preferred style. Each style has its own color.
Let's say you walk into an office and see the color red. That means, in essence, “Get to the point. Then get out.”
But most execs aren't that direct.
Your boss probably hasn't asked you to say it in 3 words or less, or given you feedback about your 29 ideas, or flashed the color red in your face.
Maybe she hasn't said a thing about valuing conciseness.
< begin sidebar>
Avoid naming all your children. Ditto for lists longer than three items.
Imagine standing in front of a huge, televised audience, with only a minute to introduce yourself. The stakes are enormous.
You're running for U.S. President.
What do you say, and what do you leave out? That's a problem that you and I, on a smaller stage, face daily.
At a 2016 Democratic debate, one of the candidates, a former U.S. Senator, told us that he had five daughters and one son. Fine.
Then he proceeded to name each one, plus tell us their occupations.
But after the first two daughters, he paused, as if he couldn't remember a single thing about daughter #3.
Now I've only got two children, but clearly, as you have more & more kids, at some point—I don't know the exact number—your mind turns completely to mush.
Then the candidate recovered: “Julia! Massage Therapist!” (Luckily, daughters #4 and #5 were both in school, so quickly dispensed with.)
But here's the question, and it's the same one your audience has: why do we need all this info?
Sometimes, when providing information, you and I fall in love with the details, as if they were our children; we want everyone to know all about them.
But this candidate's main message was clear, without the details: “Look, if I can raise six kids, I can obviously run a country.”
Meanwhile, at a 2016 Republican debate, one of the candidates, a current Senator, said he'd eliminate five federal agencies. Then he proceeded to name each one.
Same trap. Same result.
He listed the Commerce Dept. twice, as if to say, “You can't just get rid of the Commerce Dept. once. Any idiot can do that. No, I'm going to get rid of it, and then I'm going to get rid of it again . . .”
If the details are too much for you, the speaker, to remember, your listeners don't stand a chance. <end sidebar>
# Tell them what you're NOT going to tell them.
There's mystery in what people don't say. Let's use that to our advantage. When you ask someone, “How are you?” you get the mysterious, “Fine.” No one says, “Well, my spouse just ran off with the plumber, and ever since she left, I've been despondent. Also, the upstairs sink hasn't been draining properly.”
But in other conversations, the border between what to disclose vs. not gets murky.
I recently patrolled that border with a group of research scientists, while working on their upcoming presentations. Every presentation lives, or dies, at that border.
We all know what it's like to be in the audience. I often advise clients to imagine an unpleasant dental procedure.
Suppose your presentation is 10 minutes. That's a 10 minute procedure. And if you're one of eight people presenting that day, you'd need to multiply those 10 minutes by eight dentists. That's a long time.
The Gettysburg Address, as you've probably heard at least 272 times, was only 272 words—2 minutes. You wouldn't need a dentist for that, just a hygienist, cleaning and flossing at breakneck speed.
Wouldn't you rather your audience think, “That meeting was way too short, I wish there'd been another 37 PP slides!,” than the opposite?
Then consider, there are different ways to “tell.”
You already know the value of a preview (tell them what you're going to tell them), and a review (tell them what you've told them), although it's shocking how seldom we use these tools.
Here's something different: Tell them what you're NOT going to tell them.
A research scientist could say, “I'm not going to tell you about each of the 278 validation studies we ran. Let's just say, it was complicated.” Message: We didn't just pull this data out of a hat.
When it comes to either information or dentistry, less is more.
# To say less, measure.
Recently, I got a sports watch as a gift. The watch measures all sorts of things when you're out running, or walking, or getting carried away to the nearest hospital.
Sometimes, before it displays any stats, the watch adds a comment. But not always.
Suppose on Sunday, I walk out to the driveway and pick up the newspaper. No comment. Not even, “We can't believe you're up so early! Way to go!”
And even when it adds a comment, like after a 4-5 mile workout, the watch seems unimpressed. “Nice effort,” is all it says. I suspect it's being sarcastic.
But what I've noticed, since I've been measuring things, is that my workouts keep getting longer and longer. The act of measuring is not neutral, it changes behavior.
If you want to be more concise, let's measure that. Here's a possible workout:
1) In one-to-one conversations, talk less than the other person. Instead of rambling on and on, ask at least one thought-provoking question per conversation. 2) In meetings, speak in 30-60 second bites. Provide the headline news first, details later, and only give details if asked. You'll be surprised by how much you can say in 30 seconds.
3) When presenting, slim down to 10 PowerPoint slides or less. And occasionally, lose the entire deck (PowerPoint tips, page___ ).
You get the point. I'd like to say more but, according to my watch, I've got to run.
# Say more.
You may have the opposite problem. “I've gotten feedback,“ a health care manager told me, ”to speak up more at meetings.“
”What stops you?“ I asked him.
”Others in the room, they've got more experience and expertise. So I think, 'Why would they listen to me?'“
Ever feel like that? Who hasn't.
It's an editing problem, really. You're at a meeting, you have a thought, but before you can say ”hello,“ you edit yourself: ”Is that really worth sharing?“
Over the years, as an author, I've worked with editors at several publishing houses. Editors range from very encouraging to very critical.
One day, I heard about an editor who was beloved for his glowing comments. ”Brilliant!“ he'd tell an author. ”I just love your whole book.“
Meanwhile, my editor at the time had just sent back my manuscript. Almost every page was marked up in red: ”You lost me here.“ ”Is this section really necessary?“ ”This whole chapter needs a lot of work.“
So editors run the gamut. Let's talk about your editor, the one inside your head who determines what you say, and what you don't, the ”border guard on the line between thought and speech“ (Scott Spencer, Men in Black, Knopf, 1995).
If your inner editor is too fierce, it's inhibiting. Try this:
Practice speaking nonstop for 60 seconds, on a random topic. Do this alone, perhaps in your car going to work.
You don't need to stay on the topic, just begin there. Any topic will do, e.g., your To Do list, a current career dilemma, your beliefs about spaghetti sauce.
Just voice your thoughts, as they occur—forget about being coherent—even if your only thought is that you have no beliefs, really, about spaghetti sauce.
The goal: loosen your editor, spark your spontaneity. You'll never change your personality—why would you want to?—just your range.
# More or less? Give appropriate detail.
What's appropriate detail? This is the key question to ask yourself, again and again.
Answer: depends on your audience.
“He was an old man who fished alone . . . and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
That's the first line from Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was famous for simple words and short sentences.
If you're a fisherman speaking to a fishing audience, they'll want more detail; non-fishers, less. Similarly, technical audiences often appreciate more detail; non-technical audiences, less.
Here's what “The Old Man and the Sea” looks like, by the way, as a PP slide:
• Old man catches big fish
• Sharks come
• They eat the fish
• Nothing left, except backbone
• Very sad
Hemingway chose to write a novel, not a PP slide.
Being concise doesn't mean speaking 24/7 in bullet points. Otherwise, you'll sound like a prisoner of war, or a terse teenager (who thinks he's a prisoner of war).
Your audience will give you clues. Observe them. When you're talking to someone and she starts tapping a pencil, or a foot, or the side of your head, that's a clue.
To practice giving more/less detail, prep 60 second, 30 second, and 15 second versions of an important message. (Example: explain what your organization does, or what you do.)
Then be flexible.
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