Say more by saying less
A crash course in elevating your communication style
I’ve seen countless eyes glaze over as I’ve given a presentation. I’ve seen people get horribly bored and confused. I’ve had no one respond to what I thought were genius “War & Peace” style treatises. I’ve been given sh!t for ridiculously long emails and quarterly business review analyses. I’ve seen people very obviously stop listening or even get up for a bathroom break as soon as I started to make a point.
And despite all of this, I realize how critically important it is to get better at all of it—to figure out how to be persuasive, to achieve the right mix of form and substance, both in my oral and written communication and when I’m providing a combination of both. Boy, is it ever an endless challenge but one worth taking on every day—week after week, year after year, meeting after meeting, presentation after presentation, email after email.
Your ability to see you and your content the way others will is hugely important and while some people are just gifted in this category, most of us aren’t. As a result, I thought it might be worth breaking down some practical tips and tricks to make you and your content more consumable and compelling across a range of genres.
Determine three key points that you want to make, that you want your audience to remember.
Crank out your content without worrying too much about the quality, focusing on just getting it out there and making all of your key points. This could end up being 20+ slides if it’s a presentation.
Then take a step back from all of it.
Come back and make everything you cranked out your “appendix” or “supporting material.”
Create a ten-slide deck that starts with a story—make it something unexpected, human, and memorable that’s going to draw in your audience and tee up the key points you want to make.
State your three points.
Spend a bit of time on each, creating a “money slide” or two max that will bring your point to life and prove it in some way. Draft content from “best of” slides in the appendix where it makes sense. If you can use 100% pictures for the presentation, endeavor to do that. Take all of your text points that are on each slide and paste them into the notes sections.
Determine how to engage the audience at various points—asking them questions, soliciting their opinion, injecting an element of surprise.
Include show and tell if you can—providing some sort of eye candy that brings something cool to life, gets the audience excited and engaged, shows them why they should care.
End restating your three points and how to learn more.
Be solution focused and get to the point quickly—avoid going on and on once the point has been made. For every challenge you present, ensure you have an answer or a set of trade-offs for the group to make, double check that you’ve structured it in a way that helps the group arrive at the right or best choice or conclusion.
Get a colleague or even better yet a friend, child, spouse, or partner who knows nothing about what you’re presenting to let you walk through it and provide feedback. Ensure they get it even though they might not have deep domain on the topic.
Consider the tone and cadence of your voice—avoid being too high pitched or sounding whiny, be careful of fillers like “um” and “you know”, ensure you don’t do any “Valley Girl” speak. Work on being calm with a strong and measured tone, yet varied with how you make your points.
Involve other people on your team if you can—providing them a chance to show off while breaking up your piece, keeping the time fresh, and mitigating the risk around you talking the entire time.
Do a kickass presentation and drop the mic. :)
Take questions—reference slides in the appendix if it makes sense. Offer to do follow-up sessions to deep dive on any of your topics if needed.
Ensure your presentation is ten slides max and provides the entire package to everyone. Make your appendix well organized with a table of contents that’s hyperlinked into each section.
Address everyone specifically—be clear about who has an action up front and who is included for visibility. Be disciplined about who is on the To: and CC: lines. Avoid BCC’ing anyone—it can lead to massive problems you’ll regret later!
Make it immediately clear what your point is. If your point has more detail behind it—e.g., you’re providing steps that your team needs to take to achieve something—include it below the main email after you’ve signed off. A good test is whether you’re able to sign your name on the note “above the fold”—i.e., everyone gets the main point of your email immediately without having to scroll. From there, they can look further to better understand and/or take more action (e.g., answer a series of questions posed in-line in another color) if that makes sense.
Become a master at bulleting your points. If it makes sense for them to be numbered, do that. Be sure to start each line with a bolded and/or underlined short phrase or heading, so someone scanning the email quickly can efficiently see your points without having to read everything.
Keep it as short as possible.
Before hitting send, ask yourself the following: 1) Is your email communicating facts vs. emotion? 2) Could your point be more efficiently/effectively made through a phone call and/or quick meeting? If it’s emotion (i.e., heated, controversial, etc.), pick up the phone. If it’s going to be an email death spiral with a big group, get people together quickly.
Meetings: You’re a Participant
Do your homework. Come prepared as much as possible. If the presenter sent something in advance, do your best to check it out so you can contribute immediately with questions and comments that add incremental value vs. stating the obvious or holding the group back.
Put your phone down and laptop away. The best executives and most impressive people I’ve known are those who go “old school” in meetings—with a pen and notebook in hand. Typing in meetings is distracting, even if you’re taking notes, and many people sit through meetings doing email, which is even more distracting, rude, and a waste of people’s time.
Listen more than you talk. Ensure you’ve made every effort to make connections, see things that are interrelated or interdependent. In so many meetings, valuable time is wasted by people asking questions others have already asked or the leader has already covered or anyone who was thoughtful would have already extrapolated.
Avoid stating the obvious—e.g., “This is going to be hard” or “This is going to require trade-offs” or “We already have too much to do.” I’m absolutely blown away by how at least one or more people start almost every meeting with “filling the air” with useless comments like this that do nothing for themselves or the group.
Show up with solutions vs. problems. I once had someone say their meeting rule was 1-3-1, meaning for every challenge you present, you better show up with at least three options for ways you might address it, serving up the trade-offs, cost-benefit, and pros and cons of each option to help the group arrive at the best possible solution.
Help make sure every meeting ends with clarity of action and next steps. Ensure the lead highlights what was discussed and decided as well as next steps and the who’s-what’s-when’s-how’s.
Offer to take a “ball”—be the one who helps move things along and is a contributor to team progress. Figure out what you can do to encourage the team to break out of a proverbial doo loop or tautology or circular rat hole where they might have fallen prey to one.
Meetings: You’re the Leader
Create an agenda—ideally vet it with others if you can and ensure it has contributions from the team. Make sure you’re not the only one talking during the entire meeting.
Come prepared. Have slides ready to go with your objectives and content well thought out. If you want others to present something, ensure they know and come prepared to keep things moving in a way that is considerate of everyone’s time.
Inject personal with business. Include something fun at the beginning and/or the end that keeps things feeling good and human and helps the group feel connected.
Record and take notes. If you’re doing a web conference, record if you can and make it available to the group, particularly since often one or more might not be able to make it and/or someone might need to go back and revisit what was asked of them.
Stay on track! If something falls down a rat hole, be strict about keeping everyone focused. Table anything that’s off-topic for follow-up conversations where it makes sense.
End on time. It’s inconsiderate to violate this without good reason.
Follow up quickly. Send both the presentation and recording along with key points such as decisions made along with who owns what and targeted timing for each.
Love this advice? Check out our other blog posts!
Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.