Most of us in business have heard the old saw:
"Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you have told them."
Executive communication coach Brett Rutledge calls this maxim the “holy grail of presentations training.” He also refers to the popular saying as “quite possibly the biggest load of nonsense I have ever come across” and the one piece of advice “guaranteed to make your next presentation a boring one.”
Rutledge’s sentiment rings true for us, as providers of conferencing and collaboration solutions, because of another piece of conventional wisdom: Our attention spans are shrinking. Per the website Statistic Brain:
- Our average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds
- Our average attention span in 2015 was 8.25 seconds
- The average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds
Yes, our average attention span dropped more than 30 percent in 15 years and now resides, on average, beneath the level of bowl-dwelling piscine house pets. True, the providers of these attention-grabbing figures are aggregating data across the whole world population. In other words, they are hyper-generalizing a conclusion.
Mobile Workers Changing Shape of Workforce
But Rutledge isn’t. His point is specific to business interactions – in particular, face-to-face presentation. He’s not even addressing the implications of our increasingly global, mobile workforce, which is redefining the meaning of “face-to-face.” In a metaphorical sense, the distance between colleagues is widening. When participants in a meeting are not in the same room, building, city or even country, the challenge of keeping our teammates’ collective attention during collaborative sessions can be more daunting than ever.
Whether you were leading a virtual session or participating in one, chances are you noticed occasions when your teammates tuned out. Was the material just too repetitive and therefore boring?
Repetition Important, but Quality Still More Important than Quantity
Too bad the issue isn’t so simple or the solution would be easy. Redundant delivery is a convenient scapegoat, but as we’ve argued in past posts the key to making collaboration as efficient and effective as possible is more a matter of quality than quantity.
“Clearly, repetition is your friend,” communications guru David Grossman writes on his blog, leadercommunicator. “Research shows the average prospect needs to hear a message seven times before they take action. Employees...number is probably closer to three to five times. But it still takes a few reiterations for the message to sink in.”
"Tuning out happens when communicators confuse getting the message out with actually creating shared meaning and understanding."
- David Grossman
We agree and believe the figurative distance of virtual collaboration can amplify the problem, as subtle cues involved in direct interaction, such as body language, are more difficult to discern. So, the question of distracting or boring an audience rarely is what one says. Rather, it’s how one says it.
Reason is, says Ethan F. Becker, PhD, an author and president of a communications coaching firm, American English is typically spoken at roughly 183 words per minute. But we can listen and understand up to 400 words per minute.
"There are all sorts of conversations in the back of our mind," Becker told Fast Company for a recent article. "When I add filler words or something like that, I increase the chance of miscommunication."
In addition to using too many filler words, here are five other ways you may be causing remote teammates to tune out that we gleaned from the Fast Company piece and others:
1. Dismissive Responses or Segues
A phrase like, "You think that’s bad? Listen to this!" could be intended to express a shared experience, but actually sounds dismissive of the other person’s message or state of mind, Becker says. He suggests affirming that you heard the other person’s story or feelings, and then state that you can relate as a means of setting up your story.
2. Excessive Jargon
Heavy use of technical language makes information more complicated than it needs to be, says Kory Floyd, PhD, professor of communication at the University of Arizona. Accessible, specific wording isn’t "dumbing it down," Floyd explains. Instead, you’re making your message easier for people to understand.
3. Monotone Delivery
Becker recommends changing your speaking patterns during presentations and other business discourse. Keep colleagues engaged by moving from an animated, fast-paced speech pattern to one that’s more leisurely and relaxed. The variation can pique attention.
4. Openings at Odds with Intent
How you begin a discussion is critical, according to organizational development expert John Stoker, especially when approaching a tough topic. Here are three of Stoker’s favorite opening phrases that he believes signal meaning to listeners that may be contrary to your intent:
- “I don’t mean to offend you…” but that’s exactly what I’ll do next.
- “Tell me if I’m wrong…” and speak fast because I’m about to dispute your ideas.
- “I need you to…” or “You need to…” because I’m not asking here – I’m commanding.
5. Imposed Formality or Casualness
Take time to understand your own speaking style in terms of advantages and drawbacks, and then adapt your approach to specific business purposes and circumstances. Seeming overly formal or unduly casual in some situations can feel inauthentic to listeners, which creates the risk of losing their attention – and damaging your credibility.