Executive Careers Blog

Say More By Saying Less

"Stop talking already," my client said. "Everyone would appreciate it."

Well, that's not exactly what he said. "Let's try to end this workshop a few minutes early to beat rush hour," was his actual comment.

But the message was the same: Say less.

I hear that more.

"Microsoft meetings," says CEO Steven Ballmer, "used to be . . . you come with a slide deck . . . 'the long and winding road' . . . that's not what I want to do anymore . . . Please don’t present the deck” (NY Times, 5/16/09).

"If you come into my office," warns another CEO, "don't bring more than one PowerPoint slide."

Are you concise? Consider:

1) Whether you're talking for two minutes or two days, know your main message—10 words or less.

Example: Here's a main message about nutrition from author Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" ("In Defense of Food").

Actually that's three messages. The first, "eat food," is to avoid processed products. Still, the whole thing is seven words.

2) Use simple words. "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.

3) 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

4) 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).

5) The key: give appropriate detail.

6) What's appropriate detail? That depends on your audience. If you're a fisherman speaking to a fishing audience, they'll want more detail; non-fishers, less.

7) 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.

8) To practice giving more/less detail, prep 15 second, 30 second, and 60 second answers to the same question. Then be flexible.

9) (Let's skip #9.)

Tip: Use words. Not a lot. Mostly simple. (I've paraphrased Michael Pollan—food for thought.)


Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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