We can fall into a trap when we’re speaking to attract clients and referrals. Or when we’re out to highlight our contribution to the company and advance to a new position. Or when we’re hoping someone in the room will hear us … and hire us.

Naturally, we want the audience to think we know our stuff. We have deep knowledge so they can trust us. Oh, and we want them to like us too.

The trap is this: We think the path to that perception is giving them a lot of information.  

We’re feeling generous. We want to share our expertise. Our listeners need to know about this, or they wouldn’t be sitting there.

And, truth to tell, there’s an element of ego here too. It’s important to us that they think highly of us—the more information we give them the more they’ll know how much we know. And the more they’ll appreciate us, right?

So, we talk quickly to get it all in, racing against the clock. We might even lose the race, so our 30-minute talk goes 37-minutes but that’s okay because there’s so much to say and it’s really, really important to say it and I’m important too and surely they’ll see how brilliant I am and they’ll be grateful for all I’ve given them …

And it backfires.

Instead of believing I’m brilliant and generous, and they need me … they wind up thinking I’m scattered, undisciplined and overwhelming.

And I’m so caught up in my own head that I don’t understand, or even notice, how they’re feeling about the onslaught of information. Preoccupied with my own good intentions, I’m not focused on my audience.

If this is sounding familiar, you’re not alone. Not long ago I had a conversation with an extremely enthusiastic young woman about a too-long, too-fast, too-much presentation. You know what she said: “But I have so much to tell them!!!!”

Here’s another way to think about so-much-to-tell-them.

Imagine yourself hosting Thanksgiving dinner. 

Your family and friends gather at your beautifully decorated table. You’ve labored in the kitchen for days preparing for this meal. Not to mention the time you spent searching for recipes, picking the perfect produce, and choosing just the right turkey.

Even before that, you developed your cooking skills. Maybe you took a class or spent hours in your mother’s kitchen. You’ve invested a lot in perfecting your ability to prepare this delicious dinner. You can’t wait to share it with your guests.

You’re delighted when it goes well. The turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes couldn’t be better. The pumpkin pie is perfect. Your guests are ecstatic as they savor the last bite.

So, naturally, you serve them a second dinner.

You know they liked what they already ate. And you have so much food on hand. And you worked hard learning how to cook. Doesn’t it make sense to keep feeding them?

Okay, they’re glancing at each other, shuffling in their chairs, looking a little uncomfortable. You may not even notice. If you do, you’re sure those signals don’t mean a thing. You have so much delicious food for them! You’re feeling generous. You want them to think you’re a superb cook. And you want them to like you.

You get so caught up in the excitement … you might even go for Dinner Number Three.

By this time, your guests want to escape. But you’re high on the attention and the compliments and the feeling-smart-and-generous. So, you just feed them more and insist that they keep eating.

Now put yourself in the guest’s chair.

That first fabulous dinner? You enjoyed every bite.

The second one, not so much.

By the third meal, you’re nauseous. It’s too much food, too fast. You don’t like being stuffed and you really don’t like someone forcefully stuffing you.

It’s enough already. In fact, it’s more than enough. Whatever positive thoughts you had about your host; they’re evaporating in your discomfort. All you want now is … out of there.

Don’t overstuff your audience.

When you’re speaking (or when you’re serving Thanksgiving dinner) give them just enough.

A few questions will help you figure out how much information they can take in.

  • Who’s your audience? Are they familiar with the subject, or are they starting from scratch?
  • Do they already know you and like you or are you starting from scratch?
  • What is your objective? What do you want them to walk away with after you speak?
  • How much time do you have? Is it a 20-minute talk or a half-day workshop?
  • Are there other speakers before or after you?

A good jumping-off point is to come up with three main things your listeners need to know. Build your talk around those three points. And resist the temptation to make it four.

The best speakers keep their listeners in mind always. They tailor what they say… and how much they say … to meet the audience’s needs instead of their own.

Maybe you’ve overserved an audience? Or maybe you’ve sat there wishing some speaker would stop, for heaven’s sake.

Post a comment below and share your experience. (Or your favorite Thanksgiving recipe … )