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How to Stop Over-Explaining (Like Obama)

communication leadership presentation
Manage speaking on stage holding microphone


By John Millen 

Many of my clients are over-explainers. They know their subjects very well and they’re compelled to share an abundance of their knowledge with their listeners.

All of us can fall prey to giving too much information, especially about a subject for which we are passionate.

But some leaders and entrepreneurs are more vulnerable to this malady: they are smart, deep-thinking, analytical people. I’ve worked with CEOs, CFOs, data scientists and engineers who are in this category, but sales leaders and creative people can just as easily fall prey.

That’s why I was intrigued when my friend and mentor Ron Powell, who before retiring led me into leadership communication coaching, sent me a passage from former President Obama’s new book, A Promised Land:

By nature I am a deliberate speaker, which, by the standards of presidential candidates helped keep my gaffe quotient relatively low. But my care with words raised another issue on the campaign trail: I was just plain wordy, and that was a problem.

When asked a question, I tended to offer circuitous and ponderous answers, my mind instinctively breaking up every issue into a pile of components and subcomponents.

If every argument had two sides, I usually came up with four. If there was an exception to some statement I just made, I wouldn’t just point it out; I’d provide footnotes.

“You’re burying the lede!” [Campaign Manager David] Axelrod would practically shout after listening to me drone on and on and on. For a day or two I’d obediently focus on brevity, only to suddenly find myself unable to resist a ten-minute explanation of the nuances of trade policy or the pace of Arctic melting.

“What d’ya think?” I’d say, pleased with my thoroughness as I walked offstage.

“You got an A on the quiz,” Axelrod would reply. “No votes, though.”

Many of my clients find themselves in the same boat as the former president. They know all the answers, they know all of the details, and they think it will help people better understand if they provide more information. But that is not the case.

With this in mind, here are a few of the tips I share with clients to stop over-explaining:

Listen and put your listeners first

Too many of us think about what we want to say, instead of what people need to hear. There’s a huge difference. If you learn to listen more effectively and understand your listeners more deeply, you’ll know just the right words and number of words to share. 

That's why listening is your most important communication skill.

Remember, less is more

Unfortunately, in today’s distracted world, the more information you give people the less likely they are to remember the point you are trying to make because it’s lost in a sea of detail.

For those who just can't stop over-communicating, I previously wrote 5 Ways to Stop Talking So Much.

Focus your message

There’s a famous quote from Mark Twain, in which he apologized to a friend for writing a long letter, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

This certainly applies to our messages at work and in life. In my virtual training workshops, I’ll ask people to bring a three-minute presentation. That’s because it’s easy to give a 30-minute talk, but difficult to give a three-minute talk. The real work is boiling your message down to its essence, the few powerful points that really matter. 

Give the bottom line first

In college I was trained as a journalist. The first and most important lesson for writing a news story is “don’t bury your lede” (the correct spelling) as mentioned in the passage above. The lede is the first paragraph, the most important element of the story. A news story is then structured in descending order of importance. 

In speaking, a lot of us do the opposite. We think we’ll build up to our main point but along the way people lose interest. Start with your bottom line and reinforce the message with just enough detail. For maximum impact, I advise clients and friends to support their point with a meaningful statistic, a powerful soundbite or a short story. Then stop. 

Make it a conversation

Often people who over-explain are trying to be helpful by answering questions before they are asked. This is called a monologue. People don’t like monologues unless they’re performed by professional comedians.

People want conversations. So, start with your main point, offer some more explanation, then stop talking.

At this point, I will typically ask my clients, “What will people do if they have questions?” and of course the answer is, “they’ll ask.”

Right, then you’re having a conversation. It’s a good sign. It means you didn’t over-explain.


* Note from John Millen:

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