by Achim Nowak

The Gifts of Succinctness

February 5, 2024

Last Wednesday at 10 pm, I turned into the initial episode of Capote Vs. The Swans on FX.

I am intrigued by the cautionary tale of a brilliant writer whose character flaws precipitate a tragic fall from grace. I wanted to see some of the great talent involved in this project. Naomi Watts. Diane Lane. Chloe Sevigny. Demi Moore. Gus Van Sant. Many more. I love craft.

Here’s what I thought of as I watched this exquisitely concocted cinematic work. In a movie or a television show, each moment is edited, down to every nano-second. Naomi Watts and Tom Holland and the entire rest of the cast know that I, the viewer, never actually see the scenes they shot. I get to see a highly edited, streamlined, laser-focused version of their work, where footage that is deemed inferior gets deleted and other footage, in turn, is elevated via edits.

Heightened reality.

Real life isn’t movie life. In real life, you and I act as our moment-by-moment communication editors.

Edit smartly, please.

If you can’t explain something in a few words, try fewer."

Robert Breault/Opera Singer

Here are a few things I have learned as I start recording the fourth season of my podcast, MY FOURTH ACT: Some guests are easy to follow, some harder. Some deliver crisp messages on a silver platter, some meander. Some think succinctly, and some do not.

And I had to face the fact that I, too, can be repetitive and not as succinct as I would like to be. Ouch.

I think of this every week as my podcast producer, Hugo Sanchez, and I edit podcasts. We do post-production work to ensure that every guest, and I, sound crisp and clear. An everyday business conversation, of course, is not a podcast chat. If anything, there is room in a podcast conversation to be a little more expansive. Tell more stories. Get a bit elliptical, perhaps. Ride a wave of whimsy.

No Hugo edits you and me in our daily business conversations. It behooves us to have a keenly developed sense of how to clearly articulate our thoughts, craft a succinct message, and most importantly, craft it in a way that lands with impact.

It all depends on the circumstances and who we speak with, you may say. Yes, it always does. And yet there are, regardless of circumstance, some basic principles that will always help us be more succinct.

How To Be An EFFECTIVE Self-Editor

Think, then speak.

It seems so obvious – and it isn’t easy to execute. When someone asks us a question, we feel an instant pressure to answer quickly. Answer before we have settled on what we actually wish to say. Answer because we “should” be able to answer the question. Answer because we don’t wish the silence before the answer to be misunderstood. So we launch into an answer and make it up as we go along. Chances are, we will ramble. Chance are, succinctness flies out the window.

Tip: Take a second or two before you speak to collect your thoughts and settle on a message. Period. End of story. When you do, being succinct will be so much easier.

Don’t make me work so damn hard.

When you just start talking, and then keep talking as you figure out what your message is, you are making me figure out what your message is alongside you. If we get lucky, you get clear quickly. If you get lost in the fog of non-clarity, I get lost in the fog with you. I will end up working way too hard to understand the point you wish to make. You will exhaust me. And you will annoy me just a bit. Because the point you wish to make should land on the shores of my brain with ease.

Tip: Start with clearly stating your message or point-of-view, then elaborate. It will help you to stay on point. It will help me to “get” your point and follow along.

Don’t tell me everything you know.

When I ask you a question, please just answer the question. Don’t also answer questions I didn’t ask. I realize that may seem self-evident – but when we are asked about an area of high expertise for us or a topic we’re very passionate about, the temptation to over-communicate is tremendous. We want to offer more context. We want to dive into complexity and nuance. Resist. Answer the question simply, and if the other person longs for more information, s/he will jump in with a follow-up question based on the answer you provided.

Tip: 90% of all questions are easily answered with no more than 4-6 sentences. If you habitually offer longer answers, you are likely over-answering AND wearing down your conversation partners.

Please, stop.

I hear executives all the time who make a statement, are finished (or so it seems to me), add another sentence or two and are finished again (or so it seems to me), and then add yet more information. I urge you develop a clear sense of when you’re done. Know when you have delivered a message and STOP. Keep it simple by reminding yourself to deliver one main message at a time when you speak - not multiple messages or mixed messages. It is such a relief for the listener when your message is clear, simple and clean. And when you STOP to indicate that this is so. We will be so grateful to you.

Tip: Avoid multiple endings when you speak. Avoid the temptation to throw more than one message into a response. Your message is always more powerful when the listener knows that you’re done. Because you stopped.

Don’t always wish to be succinct? Here’s where the beauty of storytelling comes in. Because when it comes to storytelling, you get to be un-succinct.

Know why you are telling the story, and then revel in some of the details of the story. Help us see, feel, sense and smell the place where your story takes place. Take your time. Transport us into the experience of being in the story with you. The sensual details will do the transporting. Your succinctness will not. In a story, succinctness will give us the executive summary of the story – but if you desire the emotional pay-off of a story, luxuriate in the details.

Exceptional communicators excel at mixing up the succinctness of a clean message with the luxuriating experience of a story well told. It is a beautiful mix to behold.

Truman Capote thought of himself as a great storyteller. In the end, his lack of editorial judgment, fueled by excessive alcohol consumption, got the best of him.

Edit yourself consciously. Edit yourself well.

It’s an essential leadership and life skill.

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