In my first real career position out of college, I worked for a newly formed community bank in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as their upstart Operations Assistant. I didn’t know much about banking or bank operations, but I was energetic and eager to learn. Right from the beginning, I was tasked with managing IT under the theory of “give it to the young person, they know tech,” and worked hand-in-hand with our outside IT group to get a handle on the extensive IT needs of a growing and thriving bank operation.
I reported to the COO but often had to go up to the CEO’s office to pitch my projects. He was a veteran banking executive with many years of experience in the field. As good Southerners often do, he always had a funny story or joke or metaphor to describe what he needed from me. And many times, as I dove in to describe the issue I was experiencing, Pete would say to me, “Renee, bottom line it for me.”
I think of Pete often as I’m working with my coachees in our Transformational Leadership Program™. I think to myself, “This person uses too many words” or “Get to the point!” or “Where are you going with this?” and make a note – this person needs coaching to be a more concise communicator. Great coaches are always making those notes (and parents will recognize the impulse too). It’s our job to scrutinize our people for “what’s next” – the next insight we can give to shepherd them on their way to better habits, behaviors, and actions as they become a more powerful leader.
So back to our rambling communicators, how can we help them?
- The first step in any journey is acknowledging where you are now. Coaches, it’s time to tell the individual that they aren’t effectively getting their point across. Feedback messages are always best received when delivered with care and concern. I usually relate it to my personality and make it about me, to say “I’m an introvert and can only process so much information at once. I’ve noticed that when you’re communicating with me, you seem to use a lot of words, which can leave me unsure of your message or cause my mind to wander. I wonder what might cause that to happen?” Then I pause and wait to hear their reaction.
If you’re an extrovert, you’ll need a different angle to reach them. You might say “Can I share some feedback with you? In my experience, people have short attention spans, and it’s important for me to reach my point quickly so they hear me. I’ve noticed at times that you may take the long way around to your point, which can leave me uncertain of your true message or lose me along the way. Why do you think that happens?”
Then, as a coach, we have to be silent and listen to their response. You want the idea to “land” over there and be processed, so the two of you can start looking at the root cause for why they are rambling.
- Take yourself back to basic communication classes and remember the components of an effective presentation, which are:
- Intro (tell them what you're going to tell them)
- Key points – usually no more than 3 supporting ideas (tell them)
- Recap and call to action (tell them what you told them and what to do next)
You could assume that your coachee got these ideas in school and should know…but that’s unhelpful for the moment at hand and your desire to have them more effectively communicate with you and others. Instead, treat this as a teaching moment where you can share what you know about these important communication concepts.
I might say, for instance, “It always helps me to stop and frame up my communication before delivering it. The frame needs to include a brief and compelling intro, a few key supporting points in the middle, and a recap and call to action at the end. Listening to you just now, I suspect you might benefit from being more intentional about these elements and really thinking about your introduction to pull me in as a listener. What do you think about that?”
- In our experience, there are a few key issues that show up regularly in coaching, and one of them is confidence or the lack of it in certain areas. That can definitely be the case with rambling communication. If a speaker isn’t confident about what is important, they could reactively provide “all of that and the kitchen sink” in terms of ideas in the hopes that one of them will be what the listener needs. This might be harder to diagnose based on listening to their communication, but it could arise after you float an inquiry question to them. For instance, you might say “I noticed your communications today are more wordy than usual. Why do you think that’s happening?” or “You seem to be jumping from point to point. What is your inner voice saying to you that might cause you to say more than might be needed?” If they tell you that they are unsure of what matters in this situation, your diagnosis is confirmed. Time to roll up your sleeves to help them build the communication skills required to feel more confident in this situation, and this might include having them ask more questions of their intended audience to find out what matters most before they share their ideas.
Learning is primarily experiential (70% of learning happens on the job, according to a trusted model developed by researchers back in the ‘80’s), so use this situation to show them how you’d approach the communication. Work out loud with them to pick through the facts and create the “thesis” or central component of the idea they’re trying to communicate and discard unneeded ideas as you go. Use encouraging language like “now we’re seeing the theme” or “Do you feel it starting to come together?” so they can catch the excitement of the progress you are making together.
At the end of this brief coaching conversation (which could be held in 10-15 minutes, depending on the issue), say “I appreciate this opportunity to help you feel more confident about conveying this type of message. Let me know if I can help you again with a similar issue to reinforce your practice,” so they are likely to come back and continue their skill-building in being a more confident communicator.
- We use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality assessment as a tool to better understand how our coachees are wired. According to the MBTI, some of us (the “J’s”) are more structured than others (the “P’s”). You don’t need to perform the assessment to see this in a coachee – it will be clear to you from interacting with them.
Naturally, a less-structured person could produce rambling communications; however, the good news is that personality is about preference – it is not fixed but instead, a spectrum along which we move. We can learn to comfortably operate outside our preferences with practice.
To teach someone to be more structured, think of yourself as the police officer standing on the side of the road, adeptly in control of the traffic of the conversation. Kindly stop them to say things like:
- “So, what I think you’re driving towards is…” (Teaching them to summarize)
- “Let’s put these ideas in buckets to simplify…” (Helping them categorize and create structures)
- “I think you are bringing up too many ideas at once. Which facts really fit here?” (Learning how to cull to essential concepts)
There’s a close connection between written communication and verbal communication, and you can hone your craft in speaking through developing better habits in building emails, for instance. You might ask your rambling communicator to send you a communication that they struggled to distill, then work with them to edit it. It might require culling to the essential messages, or putting in the right order (intro and “hook,” key messages, compelling conclusion and what’s next). Point out what’s changing and why you think it gets the message across better. This kind of exercise is a powerful teaching tool on the way to becoming a more structured communicator.
- Story has an essential place in communication – to inspire, to evoke ideas, to draw listeners in. Too much story, however, can get in the way of listeners hearing your end message. You may need to kindly point this out to your rambling communicator. Your feedback could be something like, “I’ve noticed that you’re telling me a few different stories about this issue. What are the facts that you think I need to know so we can address this together?”
Here’s an example illustrating the distinction between facts and stories:
- Fact – she was late for the meeting for the third time this month
- Story – she was late for the meeting for the third time this month because she doesn’t care about the team or value our time and even when we ask her to be on time, she ignores us and its really irritating
Tell them that great leaders sort through their stories to pick out the truths and the actions necessary to continue moving forward and making progress.
Don’t forget to praise your communicator as they make progress along the way. German Poet Goethe said it best – “Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”
As you can see from these five strategies, there are actions you can take to help your rambling speakers become more succinct and “on point” with their communications. Take the opportunity to coach them using one or more of these approaches, and you’ll see the difference you can make in their ability to get their messages across both concisely and successfully.