How to be clear and concise in speech is about speaking in a way that is simple to understand and to the point. It has always been a sought after skill. But today, the pace of life necessitates it more than ever.
Just consider how many emails you need to reply to in a day (globally 347.3 billion ever day according to Oberlo), how many meetings you’re asked to contribute to, and how many different tasks you need to complete. These things coupled with our ever-shrinking attention span means that time really is of the essence and knowing how to speak more concisely is a big challenge.
There is certainly a lot of advice out there about how to be more concise in conversation, much of which seems to have some use. The job site Indeed suggests avoiding filler words; Ita M Olsen suggests speaking in chucks of essential information; and Janice Tomich suggests determining your intention and audience. But many of the suggestions seem to focus on what you should do rather than how to do it. For example, “get to the point“. well, yes, but how? How in the moment do you arrive at a level of clear thinking that enables you to “get to the point“?
And you’ve tried speaking less and saying more, right? So why is it at that particular moment in a meeting or conversation or presentation that you end up using 50 words instead of 10? Or that you make your point but then repeat it in another way? Or just when you think you’ve arrived at your point you undermine yourself with a question like, “do you know what I mean?“. Brevity is not straightforward.
No one likes a waffler. Not only do they make us feel confused and frustrated because of the time it will take to tease out the point, but they also make us feel like unsuccessful listeners. And it’s this that very few people recognise as part of the problem. When we listen, we want to feel like successful listeners. We want to feel that we’ve comprehended the point being made, and able to construct our own thoughts around that persons point in order to successfully move the conversation forward. And this can’t happen when the person speaking is waffling. We tend to feel like unsuccessful listers and worry that it Is our comprehension skills that are at fault. This is not a state you want those around you feeling when you speak. How to be concise in communication is essential to master so as to make the listener or listeners feel great about themselves.
What is the skill of being clear and concise in speech?
The skill of being concise is about sifting through the many things you could say and within a split second landing on the perfect and succinct statement that captures the essence of your thoughts and leaves those around you feeling like successful listeners who feel capable of constructing a meaningful response. That’s the state you want your listeners to be in every time you speak.
Figuring out how to be more concise when speaking is not about me telling you what you should do to be more concise, but rather how to be more concise with simple, practical techniques to do just that.
We’ll get to what to do in real life situation in a moment, but first, it might be useful to think about what to do to practice concision so that in live speech you’ve got a point of reference.
In some ways, you do this every time you write and re-write an email, write and re-write a text, record then re-record a voice memo. The only difference between this and live speech is that you have time to reflect. Nonetheless, we could use this model to practice concision.
How do you get clear and concise?
Think of something that may have to talk about today. Take one aspect of this subject and audio record yourself trying to communicate it. Keep it to no longer than two minutes. Listen back then try again but this time attempt to say it in 3/4 of the time. Avoid simply speeding up. Again listen back and try a third and final time but now in 1/2 the length. Listen back and ask yourself: what did I do psychologically that enabled me to be more succinct?
If you couldn’t do it, try a different form first, like writing a statement three times making each one shorter, asking yourself the same questions.
If you tried this once a day for the next five days, you might develop a psychological habit around what it means to sift your thoughts for the key message. It is this psychological act enables concision.
However, the luxury we gave ourselves in this activity is time. We created space to sift through our thoughts and arrives at the most concise and simple description or explanation of our message. But this time and space is the very luxury we are not afford it in life, spontaneous speech. Until we have developed the scale of sifting our thoughts in a split second in order to be concise and simple, how do we create the space and time we need?
How to speak clearly and concisely when the stakes are high?
The big threat to creating space and time as well as having access to your clearest thinking is how you meet stress. How to speak clearly and concisely when the stakes are high? It might be that you’re speaking in front of important people; that you are not as informed about the subject as you would like to be; that there is stuff going on in your personal life that is on your mind; that somethings happened that is unexpected. These are what we could call ‘performance moments’: moments when you feel that you and your value are under a metaphorical spotlight.
Whatever it is, it is hard to sift through your thoughts when the mind and body are attending to what they perceive as much more urgent needs. So the art of giving yourself space and clear thinking in order to be concise in live speech is about how you meet stress in these performance moments.
What is a concise way of talking?
A concise way of talking is when you feel your mind is able to fully focus on the subject at hand and you have space enough to meaningfully reflect on what is being said and what you’d like to contribute. These perfect conditions rarely occur, and so in moments where you’re feeling stressed, the question is how do you create space in order to sift through your thoughts and be more concise? It may feel like a luxury we don’t have but creating space is the only way we can affect change.
These performance moments turn up everywhere. Let’s start with social situation. Here you are, engaged in a conversation that you couldn’t prepare for and you have no clear sense of what the hoped-for outcome is. perhaps you feel that you should come across as being interesting, intelligent, funny, empathic or impressive to name but a few. Your mind races and you feel the pressure. You can’t very well take a big pause to sift through your thoughts. So how do you create space?
The most obvious way to do that is to ask questions. Sometimes you only need two or three to give you space enough to sift through your thoughts for what contribution you are going to make. And I’d encourage you to use questions that beginning with ‘why’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ instead of ‘have’, ‘can’, ‘do’, ‘could’, ‘would’ or ‘did’ which don’t create a lot of space as they can result in yes or no answers. Essentially, how can you keep the focus on the other person for a bit longer. In this, you can start to formulate your thoughts so as to be more concise.
The other way of creating space is by asking questions that shift the focus towards an aspect of the conversation that feel more comfortable or confident talk about. If you can lower the stress for a few moments to get yourself into that ‘optimal state’ we’ve spoken about, you can always circle back to the original conversation later.
Another tactic is to start talking about two or three things the other person said that really resonated with you or you appreciated in some way before continuing with the last thing the other person spoke about. In the act of acknowledging these things, you’ll have created space.
Let’s shift to a professional context: speaking in a meeting - where you really need to know how to be a confident, concise speaker. If there is an agenda with topics you are likely to contribute to, prep them and rehearse them, articulate them out loud, map out the way you might move from one part to another. If you don’t know the topics and they are being discussed and you know that you should or need to contribute to them, start taking notes whilst others are talking of thoughts you might want to express and let your mind sift through them for one statement or question that articulates it simply. If you are caught off guard and all eyes turn to you, the way to create more space is much like in the social context but with a few variations: ask questions that might reveal more context and information; ask questions that might reveal the hoped-for outcomes of this conversation so that you can get to the point; acknowledge the subject at hand but briefly turn the conversation to a part of the subject you actually have clear thinking around to give you time to form clearer and more concise thoughts around the actual subject.
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In both a social and professional situation you might find yourself being asked a question. There a few things that you can do to create space: acknowledge the question but before answering, express your interest in finding out what someone else in the group thinks from their particular view point or experience (in a professional context: legal, marketing, HR, product design); ask a question that helps to uncover the intention behind the question (most people are not very clear with why they have asked the question they asked and this can set you up to fail at being concise); if you are really stumped be honest, and with an upbeat tone say something like, ‘that’s a great question and I don’t have an answer right now’. You could follow this up with, ‘I’ll send you an email later’.
The very final thing to say is to remind yourself to breathe. The power of being concise is in promoting optimum cognitive functioning and the relationship between this and breathing is long and scientifically proven. It is also true that when we feel stressed and under pressure there is tendency for most of us to unconsciously hold our breath. So the next time you feel the stress of needing to speak and be concise, remind yourself to take a breath knowing that you’ll be facilitating optimum congestive functioning. Here is another article about breathing for public speaking.
Get practicing the concision exercise every day for the next five days and let me know what you are noticing. Store in your back pocket these tactics for creating space so that you can sift through your thoughts so as to create the best chances of being concise. And remember to take a breath.