Want to Make Your Point Powerfully? Make it Quickly!

How long can you sit quietly and pay attention before you become distracted?

Attention spans are universally decreasing, thanks to our media-rich environment. According to experts, there are two types of listening:

  • Listening with retention means listening without being distracted andcommitting the information to memory. Under ideal conditions, adults can listen with retention for up to 10 minutes.
  • Listening with comprehension means listening without becoming distracted. It’s possible for adults to listen with comprehension up to 20 minutes.

We also know listeners’ attention is best at the beginning of a session and decreases from that point.

If you work with people, this is really important: The longer we talk, the less people pay attention. Regardless of whether 60-minute meetings and half-day trainings become a thing of the past, this information should inform what we cover and the order in which we present it.

If you’re wondering if anything can be conveyed effectively in such a short time, think about this historical example: In November 1863, the public was invited to hear famed orator Edward Everett eulogize the Union soldiers at the cemetery dedication at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, followed by remarks by President Lincoln to close the ceremony.

Everett’s Gettysburg Oration was a 2-hour speech about warfare, heroism, and the gallantry of the Union army. At its close, the audience applauded enthusiastically before settling back to listen to the president. Lincoln rose and delivered 10 sentences – the Gettysburg Address – in two minutes. Afterwards, there was no applause: the crowd appeared to be stunned.

Today, few people have heard of the Gettysburg Oration, but the Gettysburg Address is recognized as one of the best speeches ever made. Everett was one of the first to recognize its brilliance. The next day, he wrote to Lincoln: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

We don’t need to spend a lot of time to make an important point. Brevity is a powerful and underused communication tool!


Fun fact: There is only one confirmed photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg. In the early days of photography, it took several minutes to set up a shot. The cameramen assumed, as everyone had, that Lincoln would speak at least an hour. By the time they realized his speech was over, it was too late to take a picture.




In Communication, Simple = Better

An expert tends to think and speak in jargon.

A leader is an expert who can translate their thoughts and ideas in a simple way that resonates with others.

Simplicity is defined as freedom from complexity and absence of pretentiousness.

A skilled speaker strives for simplicity because it helps them communicate clearly and unambiguously. They consciously avoid complexity, jargon, and acronyms, knowing it clouds their message, bores their listeners, and generally makes them less effective.

The best analogy for verbal complexity is a garden overgrown with weeds. Weeds aren’t just undesirable; they’re deadly. They use all the resources in the soil and water, killing the plants you want to cultivate.

Complexity in communication works the same way. If your thoughts and ideas are wrapped up in jargon and $10 dollar words, people have to expend a lot of energy to uncover your point. Few are willing to put in the effort to decode what you are saying – and those who do have little energy left over for actually considering your idea.

When we enter the workforce, we’re surrounded by unfamiliar terms, acronyms, and clichés. Eventually, we understand it and it gradually creeps into our speech. Before we know it, we’re speaking in code that is only intelligible to a few.

When we try to communicate with anyone else, we struggle because:

  1. Conveying complex thoughts and ideas in a simple way is hard.
    It takes a deep degree of expertise to explain a complex subject in simple terms. When we force ourselves out of the complex terminology, we often find a gap in our understanding. Winston Churchill was a brilliant military strategist. He was surrounded by and understood complexity but when he spoke, he distilled his message to its essence.
  2. We use industry jargon in a misguided attempt to build credibility.
    Unfortunately, people are not so easily impressed. Some people like using a framework or model to organize their thoughts. They only run into trouble when they insist the audience use the framework or model, too. Bill Clinton is a good example of an academic star who is also a tremendously effective speaker. Had he insisted on speaking in a way only fellow Rhodes scholars understand, he would be an unknown today.

Making the effort to simplify and eliminating jargon is well worth the effort. When you simplify, you’ll find your effectiveness is increasing and people are more interested in what you have to say.

In closing, this scene from The Office is a great illustration of someone simplifying technical language to be more effective.

One Way to Create Opportunity

The successful people I know have little in common. Some are shy, some are talkative. Some are detail-oriented, others are big picture thinkers. Some are doing well in their careers, others don’t have a job. Most are nice, a few are not.

Their only common denominator is that they are goal-driven. But what does that really tell us? Their goals range from being promoted every 18 months to cutting slang out of their vocabulary.

On the surface, you might have difficulty identifying exactly how to apply this to your own life. But goal-driven people always set intentions, even if they are doing something they aren’t necessarily thrilled about doing.

My friend whose goal is to be promoted every year-and-a-half thinks about being promoted all the time. Whenever he has a conversation with anyone, he sets an intention – to network, to share an accomplishment, or to identify a new opportunity.

My friend that is cutting slang out of his vocabulary always sets the same two intentions. One is to avoid using slang himself, and the other is to listen to the slang the other people use and mentally come up with alternatives. (He’s an interesting guy.)

Setting intentions for every interaction creates unlikely opportunities. Think about your goals and your day-to-day interactions. How might you find unexpected opportunities?