I was sitting down for an early dinner with a friend and a friend of that friend (I’ll call him John); someone I’d only spoken to in passing.
The restaurant we chose occupied a portion of the third floor of a five-story affair. It was situated in the building’s corner and overlooked the street with uninterrupted views of the setting sun.
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The staff had the uncanny ability to exude professionalism and warmth, the guests were young and vibrant, and I’d already drunk two glasses of wine before coming. Everything was good.
It was against this surreal backdrop my ordeal began.
As soon as the pleasantries dictated by society were over, John started to talk.
John has a deep voice that sounds like it was dipped in honey and spread over gold before being blessed by the God of music, Apollo. I’m sure when he speaks to the opposite sex, they listen.
I’m not the opposite sex.
After a few minutes of witty back and forth involving all three of us, John took over the conversation with a story.
I expected it to be short, sweet, to the point, and end with a lesson or in marketing speak “a call to action.”
I was sadly mistaken.
Instead of a quick story to energize us like you’d find in Aesop’s Fables, he decided to recite a story that reminded me of the last installment in the Harry Potter series.
My wine turned warm in my hands.
The smile stuck on my face pushed the muscles to their breaking point.
My mind wandered to an article I read on conversations.
I reminisced about my childhood.
And yet, his story dragged on, meandering through useless plot twists and poorly developed characters.
A quote by Nelson Mandela kept replying in my head;
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
At this point, he had neither my heart nor my head.
That day, I renewed my vow to practice brevity whenever possible.
Today, I want to go through the different parts of communication, the unique role speech plays, and a few ways to put your written and oral communication on another level by shutting up.
Before we get into the deeper aspects, let’s run through a primer on the communication process.
At its core, human communication is made up of three elements:
Of course, you can break it down much further and start talking about context, medium, intention, so on and so forth. For now, we’ll just take a really high-level overview of the process.
Put simply, the sender is someone who initiates a particular message. She can be a speaker, a writer, or even a person making gestures.
It doesn’t matter which medium you use or how you choose to wrap your message eg., in perfectly polished prose.
What matters is making sure the message gets to the other person or people you’re trying to reach.
As the sender, it’s up to you to infuse the message with clarity, credibility, and brevity.
The most powerful senders in the world mirror their audience; I’ll talk more about that later.
For example, I’m an avid reader and have a large vocabulary but you won’t find me using words like “ubiquitous” when I can use “everything” and be infinitely clearer.
If I’m not clear and concise, my readers leave, never to come back.
This is arguably the most important part of communication, without a message, you don’t need a sender or a receiver.
Without a message, you aren’t communicating, you’re just creating words and sounds.
Without a message, you can’t get feedback.
Without a message, you’re dead in the water.
The best messages have a central idea, a few supporting points, and take into consideration how the receiver will understand it.
For example, a conversation about marriage with a 15 year old man will be very different from a conversation with a 57 year old woman who’s been married for 25 years. Even if your goals are the same, your message won’t be.
The receiver is the final piece of the communication loop. They bring everything full circle and allow you to get feedback on your message.
It’s irrelevant whether they’re reading, listening, or viewing your message because we all want the same thing, for the receiver to understand.
This is the point where your message can get scrambled. After you’ve sent it out into the cosmos, the only thing you can do is hope you made it clear enough. We’ll touch on how to do that later, for now, just understand it’s ultimately the receivers job to interpret your message.
In 1971, Albert Mehrabian carried out research that gave us a few stats we still use today.
You’ve probably seen these figures quoted all over the internet, in books, and in podcasts but that’s the problem with taking things out of context.
In the experiment, Professor Mehrabian wasn’t testing for the way messages are communicated in conversation.
He was actually testing how information was conveyed to a receiver in a single word. Subjects were asked to listen to a woman’s voice saying “maybe” in three different ways to convey liking, neutrality, and dislike.
They were also shown photos of the woman’s face to convey the same three emotions. They were then asked to determine the emotion from the recorded voice, the picture, and both of them together.
The participants identified the right emotion 50% more frequently from the photo as compared to the voice recording.
Does this prove body language is more important in speech? Not at all. The confines of the experiment were much too narrow to draw that type of conclusion.
In fact, we’ve evolved entire centers in our brain which have no other use than to interpret speech. When you receive an oral message, it’s sent to two parts of the brain. The part of the brain dedicated to processing words is usually the left hemisphere; the specific part being the Superior Temporal Sulcus.
The part of the brain dedicated to registering speech sounds and attaching meaning to the pitch, rhythm, and tone is located in the right hemisphere.
A study carried out with 44 right-handed musicians, exposed each of them to both speech sounds and music sounds. The study showed overwhelming evidence that the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for picking up on the unique sounds which make up speech, after which, it’s passed to the left hemisphere for processing.
Here’s a video showing the portions of the brain associated with speech and how words affect us.
Why does all this matter?
We’re built to listen more than we speak and body language is just a small portion of that process. At the risk of sounding cliché and reducing the power of my perfectly polished prose; you should talk less and choose your words carefully.
“I choose to choose few words each day. Yes! few words that count. Few words that can make impact. Few words that talk much. Few words that can make people ponder to wonder. Few words that are indelible. Few words that can leave distinctive footprints on minds. Though we may fail to mind our words, we shall never fail to mind the works of our words.”
Marty Nemko also sums it up well in his method called the traffic light rule.
“During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green; your listener is probably paying attention. During the second 30 seconds, your light is yellow — your listener may be starting to wish you’d finish. After the one-minute mark, your light it red: Yes, there are rare times when you should “run a red light:” when your listener is obviously fully engaged in your missive.”
Let’s look at a few ways to talk less say more, and kick ass in the process.
An adverb is a form a speech used to modify verbs, qualify them, and add meaning to them. We use them in everyday speech so it’s natural they slip into our writing as well.
The problem with adverbs is they can dilute the power of your message. It’s like being paired with the second cousin of the hot friend, it’s never the same.
In Stephen Kings book On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft he has this to say about adverbs.
The adverb is not your friend.
Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
Look at the following sentences and decide which one is more powerful, more charged, and more effective at conveying the message.
He quickly ran through the door to avoid being crushed.
He bolted through the door to avoid being crushed.
Just changing one word and removing another adds more power and purpose to the thought. It does the same for oral communication; allowing you to talk less and say more.
One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever got was to write fast; write so fast you don’t have time for the internal filter to take control and edit your prose.
That technique definitely comes with its advantages; allowing you to vomit your thoughts onto the page. It also comes with a lot of hiccups you need to go through and edit out.
It works well in writing, but not so well in speech because once something is spoken, it can’t be taken back.
We can plan our thoughts before speaking, but we only do it in very specific situations.
For example, you’ll probably think about what you want to say when you’re in trouble and need to come up with a good excuse, but no so much when you’re arguing with friends.
We usually make it up as we go.
A few of the benefits of slowing down and planning your thoughts include:
So when I say cut ruthlessly, plan out what you’re going to say ahead of time. This’ll allow you to naturally remove filler words:
Like with all things, practice makes perfect.
Let’s look at how you can use a technique called The Paramedic Method to create powerful prose. It was first introduced in Richard Lanham’s book Revising Prose and is made of six steps:
Great writers aren’t considered great because they have a huge vocabulary, they’re considered great because they know how to communicate a message. Usually, a simple sentence gets bloated because an author wants to show off his literary prowess.
Let’s look at the paramedic method in action with an example directly from the book.
Repeating what someone else says in conversation doesn’t make you sound like a parrot; it actually proves you’re highly engaged.
The simple act of repetition shows you’ve been listening, find what they’re saying is interesting, and gently nudges them to get on with it.
In How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Simple Tricks for Big Success in Relationships Leil Lowndes says:
“…simply repeat or parrot the last two or three words your companion said, in a sympathetic, questioning tone. That throws the conversational ball right back in your partner’s court.”
It’s surprisingly effective, but the key here is only using it a few times in conversation.
On the other end of the spectrum, research has shown when you’re the sender, it’s also effective to repeat your message multiple times. This is especially true when you’re advertising or sending out marketing messages.
Choose your message, make it as short as possible, and repeat it often.
The crème de la crème of communication. The ultimate weapon in your talk less say more arsenal.
When you listen, I mean really listen, you’re able to get a much deeper understanding of the message and the context.
I’m sure you already know there are two types of listening; passive and active. Passive listening comes by virtue of you being alive and having a working auditory system.
If you’re lying down in your bed and hear the sounds of the night, you’re passively listening, there’s no more effort required on your part.
Active listening is another beast entirely. This is where you listen using your ears, eyes, and body.
Let me explain.
Active listening involves looking at the person talking (maintaining eye contact), facing them with your body, making the appropriate gestures (nodding), and small remarks while they’re delivering their message (a yes or mm-hmm).
Active listening occurs when you make a conscious decision.
Nonverbal signs of active listening
“When people talk, listen completely, most people never listen”
Active listening puts the sender at ease and allows them to communicate more effectively, honestly, and fully. A direct result of this is giving you more information to create an appropriate message of your own.
Since the receiver gives you so much information, you’ll be able to avoid asking so many questions for clarification and get to your own point quickly and effortlessly.
Talk Less Say More, simple advice for a complicated world. With a little guidance and a lot of effort, you can make yourself a master orator or wordsmith.
A person who’s every word is valuable because they choose them so well.
I know there’s so much information out there about effective communication and this post may be one of many you’ve read.
Utilize the insights to make all your communication more powerful and remember that you only improve the things focus on.
Let me know what you think in the comments and if you found this post useful make sure you share it.
Remmeber, the goal is to talk less, say more.