Being Succinct

I must apologize for the length of this article, but I didn’t have time to be brief, or: How to be more succinct.

The title of this piece is a slight alteration of a famous Blaise Pascal quote, but the sentiment remains the same.  Clarity is the basis of brevity and clarity requires the time to properly formulate your thoughts.  Alongside developing executive presence, becoming more succinct is one of my clients’ top objectives.  Typically, the client is transitioning into a more senior executive role and needs to be able to articulate their points to other senior executives within two or three minutes.  This is easier said than done.  While people may know they need to be more succinct (Be bright, be brief, be gone!), they don’t know how to do it. 

The key to achieving brevity is in being able to structure your thoughts.  This means taking the time to think about your audience and focus on what you need to convince them of.  The approach is simple, but the application is often challenging as it requires a shift in mindset and in approach.  Ironically, I am going to spend some time in this article really digging into how to be brief.  So, if you’re pressed for time, here’s the gist: shift your thinking from telling/explaining to convincing/persuading; take the time to think/prepare before speaking; focus on what you need to convince your audience of and put your main point upfront; build persuasive arguments that convince the audience of the main point; provide only the amount of detail that is required to support the arguments.

For those of you who want more detail, read on.

Shift your thinking from expert to leader

For about fifteen years, I was the lead consultant at an agency that delivered a course called Speaking as a Leader, which was delivered to Senior Leaders.  This always struck me as odd.  So, one day I kicked off the course be saying, “You are all senior leaders and yet you’ve all signed up for a course called Speaking as a Leader, so clearly that’s not what you’re doing.  If you’re not speaking as leaders, what are you speaking as?”  There was a bit of stunned silence and the people in the room wondered what they had signed up for, but eventually one gentleman offered, “I think that I am speaking as an expert.”  This makes a lot of sense.  For most of us, the first part of our careers is defined by our expertise.  When we are asked to speak, it is because we are subject matter experts.  When I asked the course participants to attach a verb to the objective of someone who is speaking as an expert, the responses were ‘inform’, ‘explain’ and ‘educate’.  When I asked them to attach a verb to the objective of someone who is speaking as a leader, the responses were ‘inspire’, ‘convince’ and ‘influence’.  Which speaker would you like to listen to?  And furthermore, are they mutually exclusive?  I would suggest we absolutely want our experts to be inspiring, convincing and influential.  We need them to be.

The reason that this is important for brevity is that there are structural ramifications to speaking as an expert.  When an expert is trying to explain an issue, she or he will typically walk the audience through their content, in an effort to lead them to the same conclusion they have arrived at.  Flip to the second last slide of almost any PowerPoint presentation and you will typically find the main points of the presentation.  The structure most experts apply is to walk the audience through buckets of content and arrive at their conclusion, summary, bottom line, at the end.  The problem with this structure is that it is difficult for the audience to follow, it’s not what they want, and it gives you no control over the length of your talk.

When speaking as a leader, the goal is to persuade your audience rather than educate them.  This allows you to place your main idea (thesis) up front, followed by the structural arguments that, when put together, will convince your audience of your thesis.  This gives you control over the length of your talk: you can deliver it in 60 seconds, 5 minutes or an hour, depending on the depth of detail you go into to support your structural arguments.

Allow me to provide an example.  For a number of years, I worked with a large telecommunications company.  They had a CEO who was notoriously impatient when it came to communications.  One SVP I was coaching quite earnestly asked me what to do when the CEO holds his hand up an inch away from your face to stop you from talking.  So, when a VP was asked to provide the CEO with an update on a technical issue, he did everything he could to make the e-mail he sent as succinct as possible.  He put everything in bullet points.  He removed any extraneous information.  When it was finally as succinct as he could make it, he pushed send and went to bed.  The next morning when he got up, there was already a response from the CEO in his inbox.  It said, “Too long – didn’t read.”  The VP had two take-aways from this experience.  The first was that the CEO was just being honest.  When he thought about it, he realized that he often did the same thing – didn’t read an e-mail – he just didn’t tell the person who sent it.  The second take-away was that the reason the e-mail was too long, despite his best efforts, was because he had been trying to explain the issue to the CEO, rather than telling him what he thought and supporting it with a couple of key points.

Structure your thoughts

The structure is very simple: start with the one point you want your audience to walk away with and then support that point with why the audience should believe it, how we can achieve it, or both why and how.  Let’s take a very simple and common example of a Why structure.  About 60-70% of all IT presentations I have ever seen are essentially different versions of the same presentation:

Thesis:  We need to invest in replacing X legacy infrastructure to meet the current and future needs of  the business.

Here’s why:

  • The current infrastructure no longer serves the needs of the business
  • We’re holding the current legacy infrastructure together with binder twine and duct tape as it is
  • The cost of maintaining the legacy infrastructure is rising exponentially
  • There’s an off-the-shelf solution that meets the current needs of the business and is fully scalable to respond to future needs
  • Investing the money now will save us money down the road

Built into this example is the fact that the IT department has previously been unsuccessful at convincing the executives to make the investment in the past.  That’s why it’s being held together with binder twine and duct tape.  In my experience, technology experts often love to explain how things work.  This is a situation where the more you seek to explain, the less persuasive you become.

When dealing with content, I teach my clients to think about ideas, rather than content.  My job is to listen to people talk about stuff I don’t understand (some of my clients are literally nuclear physicists) and repeat it back to them better than they could say it themselves.  The way I do this is by listening for anything that sounds like an idea, and then repeating it back to them in such a way that I lead with the main idea, support it with the Whys and then lay out the Hows.  In 23 years of coaching in 14 different sectors, in all areas of the organization, I have never come across a situation where this simple structure didn’t apply.

A simple and clear structure needs to be the starting point for any communication.  It should be the basis for building a strategy document for the board, your notes for a 1:1 conversation, an update for your leader or the outline for an e-mail.  If you have a clear, persuasive structure, you will have the ability to communicate your ideas succinctly.  And remember, at the executive level, if they have a question, they’ll ask.  All it takes is a little practice to train yourself to think structurally.  And it means taking the time to think before you speak.