You probably know somebody who answers a simple question with a long, round-about answer. Who can’t seem to tell a story without covering every last detail of every single thing every individual said and did. Who apparently doesn’t realize that they lost your attention in the first few seconds of their long, drawn-out tale.

You may even be that person.

Not long ago, in a workshop with six people who want to be better speakers, five of them told me they needed help being more concise. Or eliminating over-talking. Or as one put it, “I need to shut the hell up.”

The people in that room have plenty of company. You know this because just the other day, your attention was drifting away as somebody went on and on and on.

A few tips for trimming the blah-blah:

  • Start with the end in mind. Pause and consider – what is the point of talking about this? Are you trying to convey information? Get a laugh? Get a sale? Let someone know that you can relate to their situation?
  • Keep your audience in mind. Who are you talking to? And what do they care about? (Hint: it’s probably their own story, not yours.)
  • Once you know the outcome you want, you know what information you need to include and what can be edited out.
  • Your best friend and your mother are interested in exactly what happened. For the rest of us, the exact time and sequence of events rarely matters. We may not need to know the complete cast of characters. Who was wearing what is irrelevant to us. And the back-story probably isn’t necessary.
  • Imagine yourself as a news announcer. When I was on the radio, I learned to tell even the most important stories in 25 seconds, with room at the end to say, “Catherine Johns, WLS News.” It’s amazing what you can leave out and still give someone the information they really need.
  • Let us ask for more detail if we want it. Especially in a business conversation, you’re better served by a dialogue than a monologue anyway. Say just enough to grab their interest, then wait for an expression of interest before you add to it.
  • Think Threes. There’s a reason it’s always “Three guys in a boat …” or “Three guys walking into a bar.” Or “a rabbi, a minister and a priest …” There’s just something magical about a Format of Three.Problem – Action – Result. What it was like – what happened – what it’s like now. Set-up – Body – Conclusion. You may be surprised at the impact you can have in three sentences.
  • Remember that your story is more important to you than to anyone else. Especially when we talk about big, life-changing events, we tend to dwell on details that don’t mean anything to other people. Our talk will be much more effective if we strip out some of the unnecessary verbiage.
  • Keep your audience in mind. (It’s worth repeating.) I watched a conversation the other day: one person yak-yak-yakking and the other one looking away, fidgeting, moving farther and farther from the speaker. Pay attention to the feedback you’re getting.

When someone leans in with their eyebrows raised, they’re probably eager to hear more. When you see the body language of boredom, you know it’s time to stop. Better yet, ask the other person a question and listen.

Try it out for yourself. Get more concise in your conversations and see what response you get. Notice your own reaction when other people yammer too much.

And please share your observations in the comments.