Whether you speak to an audience of hundreds at a conference … or a handful of colleagues around a conference table … discipline is your friend.

Here’s what I mean by discipline. You can’t say everything you might like to say in the time you have available. You’ll need to choose what to leave in and what to leave out.

It’s not easy to make those choices, is it? And sometimes it seems every decision leaves you with another decision to make.

In a workshop for a marketing team last week, they asked what level of detail to provide when they present to the leadership team. How to structure their content. And what do we do when we sense our listeners have stopped listening?

They’re not alone. Most people in business wonder how much to say about their knowledge or expertise … how to lay it out to keep people’s interest … and how to respond when that interest flags.

How much is too much?

In a meeting where you’re speaking to company leaders, you’ll want to give them as much detail as they want. That means being attuned to the them—what they already know about your subject and what they need to know.

You might start by asking them straight out. Or you can provide the information you’re sure they need—and stop there. See if they have questions. Or ask, “Would you like me to go deeper on that?” or “What more do you need to know?”

For some executives, it makes sense to give them the highlights, then offer additional details in a handout or a follow-up email. They may or may not read it—but at least they know that you know your stuff.

The mistake many make is to get carried away with their content and their understandable desire to impress the people at the top. So, they drone on and on and on until the audience’s eyes glaze over and they can’t wait for the torrent of data to stop.

Structure the information for clarity.

It helps to tell people what to expect and then follow through. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em … tell ‘em … then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

That much repetition will drive some people crazy. It is useful, though, to give your audience some guideposts to follow. (“There are three main things you need to know …” and then deliver the three things.)

Apart from what you say, your body can also support the structure of your presentation. Masterful speakers use their gestures and movement to reinforce a shift to a new topic. That way, they’re not constantly saying, “moving along” or “the next thing I want to talk about” or some other repetitive transitional phrase.

And if you sense their attention drifting?

So there’s one guy texting and a woman whispering to the person next to her … and somebody else staring out the window. This is a tough one, especially when you present to senior people or to your clients. You’re not going to scold them for their bad manners, are you?

My first suggestion is: get better at speaking. You can’t change the bosses’ behavior or the client’s—the only one you can change is you. And while some people will be jerks no matter who’s talking, the more compelling you are, the less you’ll run into this problem.

In particular, using eye contact well keeps your audience attentive—because they know your attention is on them. If, instead, you’re looking at the screen and reciting what’s on it, you’re likely to lose people.

Keep your presentation direct and to-the-point and watch for the tendency to repeat yourself. While you might be going for emphasis, saying something again after we just heard it can make us tune out.

But let’s say you’re doing everything right, you’re a stellar speaker, and they’re still drifting. They’re busy people with a lot on their minds besides the subject of this particular meeting. (And maybe they are jerks.)

One approach is to ask a question. “Have we covered what you need to know about this?” “Would it help if we stop here? I can send you the details in an email.” “Should we take this up at our next meeting?”

Or you can just stop talking. Yes, it takes nerves of steel. And, a long pause is one way to bring their attention back to you. Get quiet. Wait for the hubbub to stop. Then smile and continue where you left off.

The key to all these steps is relentless focus on your audience.

I encourage my clients to set self-consciousness aside. To zero in, instead, on the group they’re speaking to and exactly what those people need. To focus like a laser on one specific way, as a speaker, they can meet that need. And to have the discipline not to drown their listeners in data.

I recommend the laser-focus because attention spans are short – and getting shorter. Because you serve your listeners best when you give them just what they can take in and use. And because in the end, your words have more power when there are fewer of them.

Maybe you’ve run into these issues yourself. Wondering how much to say, worrying that it’s not clear, or thinking they’ve tuned you out?

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