The ABCs of getting your message across effectively
Using “word economy” and other proven principles to improve your Awareness, Brevity and Clarity
When communicating with clients, whether in person or over video, the approach you take makes a meaningful difference in how effective you are in conveying your points, gaining confidence with your audience, and even improving your relationships.
After 30 years in management consulting and many years studying effective communications, I’ve found some fundamental principles that make an impactful difference. While these principles and examples are focused on client interactions, they apply to getting your message across effectively in any professional setting.
You may spend dozens of hours preparing a project report or developing a proposal yet only have a few meetings per year with an important client. Investing the time to improve the clarity and delivery of your message helps ensure you make the most of important conversations.
When presenting, sharing your ideas, or having an informal discussion, it’s important to be aware of how much you speak vs. listen. It’s also important to be brief and clear in getting your message across. Awareness, Brevity, and Clarity — The ABCs of Effective Communications.
The first step is to become more aware of how much you are talking vs. the other party. It’s natural when talking to a client to feel like the purpose of a meeting is to spend most of the time sharing your insights and knowledge about a topic. However, it’s typically not the most effective way to approach a discussion.
In Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, habit #5 is Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. This means having a mindset to learn about what’s important to the client before sharing your perspective. Avoid going into a meeting ready to talk about what you know without first asking open-ended probing questions to understand what matters most to the other person.
Not only will you learn more by listening more than you speak, but it also helps you better tailor your points and shows the client that you are genuinely interested in their perspective.
The late Larry King said, “Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”
The 2/3 Principle. A good rule of thumb is that the client should be speaking about 2/3 of the meeting. To some, this may be surprising if one has a mindset that you are there to teach the client about your ideas and get through a large number of slides. However, the more time spent listening, asking good questions to truly understand the others point of view, and being thoughtful about where to share brief, and clear insights is usually more effective.
Even in situations where the meeting intent is to propose or share a project readout, it’s essential to pause and ask the client questions about their feedback along the way. However, we’ve all seen many cases where the presenter starts talking, rattling off slide after a slide of information while the client just stares back at them. This is never a good thing. Clients and colleagues are often too polite to interrupt even though someone may be rambling on and losing their audience’s interest.
Studies of B2B sales show that Buyers report that 40% of second-place finishers didn’t listen to the client. You can avoid being part of the 40% by making listening a priority in every meeting.
The 2/3 Principle is well said by a Roman philosopher and orator who made the same point 2,000 years ago about this golden ratio:
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” — Epictetus
What if the client is just listening as you or the presenting team continue to talk and they aren’t asking questions? It’s then your responsibility to pause or stop and ask open-ended questions to engage them. One great question is to pause after making a point or covering a slide and ask, “Mary— What’s your take on this?”. That simple, open-ended question typically gets the person engaged and talking. Think about other open-ended questions to ask at specific points in the presentation/discussion before the meeting as part of your meeting planning. That way, if the client is not engaging on their own, you have some natural questions ready to draw them into the discussion.
Being more self-aware in conversations also means not interrupting the client. If you are practicing active listening, your points can wait, and typically the more the client is talking, the better. Wait for a natural breakpoint to jump in and take notes if you have ideas you want to cover later.
One final aspect of having greater awareness during meetings is to notice when the client gets your point and is ready to move on. This requires observing their body language and words. If you are aware of these signals, it can help you know when to stop and move on to your next point or let them speak. I’ve seen many cases where the client says “got it”, flipping ahead in a deck, and is clearly ready to move on, but the speaker feels compelled to hit every remaining bullet on their slide and keeps talking for five minutes. Be aware and read your client to make sure you are going at the right pace with the proper interaction to keep their interest.
People who say less often come across as more knowledgeable. The longer you talk, the greater the risk you may start ramble. Using fewer but more thoughtful words allows you to make more impact with the added benefit of allowing the other person more time to speak, giving you more time to listen actively.
Brevity takes deliberate practice and some planning to make sure you narrow your message down to the most salient points for your audience.
An impactful way to improve your brevity is to focus on your “word economy.” Word economy means being thoughtful and deliberate with your points, using as few words as possible. While it’s easier to begin speaking with a stream of consciousness, it’s more effective to be thoughtful in getting your message across by using fewer words to say more.
For example, word economy would be getting your point across more effectively with 200 words in what might normally take you 400–500 words if you were to just start talking.
It’s easy to over-describe the points you want to make, especially in fields like consulting, where you may feel like the more you say, the more value you add. However, using fewer words — deliberate and well-spoken usually provides more value and shows the listener you value their perspective and time. One way to do this is to make the assumption going in that the listener will understand your points quickly and won’t require as much explanation. They can always ask follow-up questions. Another is to practice your key points and see if you can cut it down by 20–50% of the words and make your same points.
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” — Thomas Jefferson
Another good rule of thumb that helps improve brevity is the Three Minute Rule. Generally speaking, if you are talking more than two to three minutes at most without either a clear pause allowing the other party to comment or ask a question, or you directly ask for their feedback, you are talking too much.
While there are exceptions to all rules of thumb, in general, if it takes you more than three minutes to make your point and the other party is not engaged, you risk them losing interest. Most people have a limited attention span to listen to one person go on for more than a few minutes (unless, of course, they are listening to a formal speech), so by practicing brevity and keeping the discussion interactive; you also help ensure the other party stays engaged.
One final point on brevity. Avoid the need to pile on with commentary in a group meeting unless you have something meaningful to add. It’s easy to feel pressure to jump in with comments to be heard and visible, but if this results in stating the obvious or just repeating someone else’s point, a waste of time. It’s better to listen more and only comment when you have a relevant point to add.
Think about your brevity next time you have a meeting with a client or colleague. Improving your word economy increases your effectiveness as a communicator, improves your executive presence, and can often help build stronger relationships.
The third part of the ABCs is the clarity of your message and speaking style.
Clarity includes both the language you use (and don’t use) and your speaking style to communicate your points as effectively as possible.
- Avoid unfamiliar or technical jargon. Skip the jargon if possible and if you are going to use technical terms that may be unfamiliar to your audience, provide the definition first. It’s frustrating when the speaker continues to use words or acronyms that are not clear.
- Provide overview context as you move to new topics, so it’s clear what you will be covering and how it fits into the overall message. It’s easy to be so familiar with the material that you want to jump straight into details, but it’s important to remember that your audience may be seeing this for the first time and will need to understand how everything fits together.
- Avoid over-explaining a concept. It’s better to provide a clear, straightforward overview and ask for feedback on the client’s understanding/questions instead of assuming they need the 10-minute version when they may have understood your point a couple of minutes in.
- Slow Down. Speaking too fast is often seen as a sign of being nervous and unsure of what you are saying. Even if you are naturally a fast-talker, make a deliberate effort to slow down and be clear and precise in what you say. If you feel rushed to get your points across, that’s usually a sign that you are not focused on brevity and clarity. It’s much better to speak slowly and clearly with fewer, more precise words than to race through your points so quickly that your audience can’t follow you.
- Use the Power of the Pause. One of the most powerful ways to emphasize your points and increase the clarity of your message is to use strategic pauses after key points or transitions. A pause gives your audience a moment to process your topic before you move on to something else. There is the added benefit that if you include strategic pauses, the other party has the opportunity to ask questions or comment.
- It’s also better to briefly pause and think if you don’t have an immediate answer vs. ramble on while you’re thinking about how to respond. Impactful speakers often use the power of the pause. I’ll never forget an example of this from a senior client during an important meeting. He was asked a question and then paused for three or four seconds, thinking about his answer. One of the partners in the meeting jumped in because silence is often uncomfortable and tried to restate the question. The client said, “No, I understand the question. I’m just thinking about how best to respond to add the most value”. Impressive.
- Lose Filler Words. “Umm…” “Ahh…” “Like…” “Ya know...” These and other useless “filler words” can at best dilute and at worst distract from your message without you even realizing it. Fillers are empty words that are padding between words or sentences without adding any additional meaning. We usually use filler words when talking too quickly or are trying to think of what to say next. They can also be a sign of being ill-prepared and/or nervous.
There are three effective ways to improve your clarity by eliminating filler words from your language:
- Listen to yourself and become aware of your favorite filler words — record yourself if needed (warning — this can be painful to listen to!)
- Slow down — filler words are often added because you are talking faster than you can think
- Use pause instead of fillers. Again, pausing can be a powerful way to increase your clarity while eliminating the need to fill the space with useless filler words.
“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
By improving your Awareness, Brevity, and Clarity in your communications, you will become more effective in getting your message across. In summary:
- Listen more than you speak — remember the 2/3 Principle
- Ask “What’s your take on this?” to get the other person talking
- Improve your Word Economy
- Engage your listener(s) — remember the 3 Minute Rule
- Slow down and use strategic pauses
- Lose filler words
These principles are simple but not necessarily easy to master. If they seem like common sense, ask yourself if they are really common practice for you as well. I continue to work on improving my ABC’s to improve my communications — it’s an ongoing journey and personal challenge to keep improving upon.
Each of these areas takes deliberate and focused practice to improve upon lifelong habits but will pay off in improving your presence, effectiveness, and often your relationships.
One final suggestion: Think about an impactful speech or speaker you admire. This could be someone from a TED Talk, a powerful presentation you witnessed, or a meeting with a senior executive you admire. What probably comes to mind is someone who was very purposeful with what they said speaking with word economy and clarity. How you can you model your ABC’s after someone you admire to improve your communication style?
Hopefully these suggestions are helpful. Let me know of any comments or any tips I missed on the ABC’s!