how to help an employee become less long-winded

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A reader writes:

I have an employee who is extremely detailed in every way. This can be great in some cases, but whenever she speaks (in a meeting or just one-on-one) she is extremely long-winded. She will generally say the same thing in three different ways, and then summarize again. Her emails and written projects are novels. Texts come in 3 or 4 parts as they are so long.

I have given her feedback on being brief, told her to use bullet points, shorten her written work, given her timelines (i.e. “you have 5 minutes to explain,” etc.) but to no avail. After this feedback, she has made very minor attempts to be brief. For instance, she will sometimes ask me to review an email before she sends it, but is pretty adamant about keeping a lot of information in. I find that she is completely unaware of the issue; often before a meeting when we all agree to be brief, I will do my part (hoping to be an example) but she doesn’t pick up on it.

My main concern is that people really tune her out as she continues to speak. It really does not go well on conference calls (when it’s hard to pay attention anyway). She is starting to present to leadership, and in our company it’s all about “Be Brief, Be Bright, Be Gone.” I want her to succeed and so I really want to give her the feedback/tools she needs.

I realize this is the way she is, and I’m not sure it can be changed. Do you have any advice on these sorts of issues?

You’re absolutely right that this habit will hold her back professionally; the higher up the ladder she goes and the more she’s in front of higher-level managers, the more important it will become for her to be able to distill a message down its essentials and convey them quickly and concisely. So it’s great that you want to help her with this, because it’s going to impact her career and reputation otherwise.

It’s going to take some coaching though; it’s not going to be one or two quick conversations, because this type of thing is usually a pretty deeply ingrained habit. Assuming the rest of her work is good — and thus it’s worth a short-term investment of your time to help her improve in this area — here’s what I would do:

1. Sit down with her and say that you want to have a serious conversation with her about a work habit. I know you’ve talked with her about this before, but because it didn’t have a lasting impact, it’s time for another conversation, and this one has to feel more serious, so that it’s clear to her that you’re not just making suggestions or giving offhand advice.

Explain to her that conveying information more concisely isn’t just a style preference; it’s a business necessity in most workplaces, and it’s something that you need her to actively work on. Tell her that you’re worried that it’s impacting her professionally and will continue to do so, and that her work is good and deserves to have people pay attention to it, but they won’t if she doesn’t find a way to communicate more concisely. Tell her that you want to see her succeed, and that you want to work with her on this habit so that it doesn’t hold her back.

2. Give her specific guidelines. It’s not enough just to say “keep things shorter,” because her calibration meter in this regard is off. She can’t tell when something is too long. So you need to spell it out much more specifically. For example, you might tell her that no memo should be longer than one page and that they should be primarily written in bullet points, no email should be more than three short paragraphs, presentations should be no longer than X minutes, and she should observe how long others speak at meetings and speak no longer than that herself.

These are obviously rigid guidelines, so acknowledge that and explain that you want her to use them for now, while she adjusts to a new way of conveying information, but that she won’t need to stick to them so rigidly once conciseness has started to be more of a habit. You’re just asking her to use them for now while the two of you are working on this, not forever.

3. Coach her actively on this going forward. For instance, when you assign her a written project, give her a maximum page count at the outset. If she’s concerned that she won’t be able to include all the information she thinks should be included, talk through her thought process. As you hear what she’s worried won’t fit in, explain to her why X is important to include but Y isn’t.

And explain to her — explicitly — that higher level decision makers (and others; modify depending on the audience/context) specifically don’t want all the information. They want high-level conclusions and takeaways, and to be able to trust that that’s been backed up by thought and research before it came to them so that they don’t have to spend their time on that part. Some people genuinely don’t realize this, and they feel that their work won’t be credible or will seem incomplete if they don’t include all relevant details on the topic. Spell out for her that her audience actively doesn’t want this. To some people, this is completely counterintuitive, so you may need to remind her of it more than once.

4. Don’t rely on her picking up on hints, like you asking at the start of the meeting that everyone be brief or being brief yourself as an example. That’s not working, so you’re going to need to be more explicit. For instance, you might say in a meeting, “Jane, could you give us a quick one-minute overview of X?”  Or when it’s just the two of you, “This is a bit more than I need; I trust you to have the details covered without me needing to be in the loop. What are the parts that you need my input on?” (Or “Tell me just what you think is most important.”)  You can also give her time cues at the start of conversations: “We only have 20 minutes and I’m hoping we can cover X, Y, and Z in that time.”

5. And last, make sure to give her feedback along the way, whether it’s “The start to your presentation on the call was great, but I think you started losing people when you started talking about the details of how the new software will work” or “This memo is a great example of you putting into practice what we talked about, and I love how you conveyed all the high-level information in an easy-to-skim way.”

If you’re willing to invest some time to do all the the above, you should either see a real change in the next few months, or not. If you don’t, then you’ll need to decide how much of an issue this is for her performance. Lack of improvement might mean that she gets fewer/no opportunities to present before senior management, or that she’ll never be your first choice for higher-profile projects, or that it impacts her ability to progress in the organization. Or it might just mean that you’ll have to continue sending projects back to her with instructions to shorten them. Whatever the likely consequences, talk to her about them explicitly so that she’s clear on what the trade-off is that she’s making.

But with a couple months of focused coaching on this, I think you have a good chance of helping her overcome the habit pretty significantly. Good luck!

{ 139 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. The Snarky B

    Great advice!
    OP, you should also keep an eye out for her attitude towards other employees’ competence. I used to be very long winded in my communication, and then I realized that at that job, I (rightly) felt I couldn’t trust my fellow employees’ ability to comprehend and/or follow through appropriately, so I was explaining each important thing 3-4 times in one breath, and then explaining the very obvious consequences to people. So not only were they losing interest & attention span, I wasn’t even accomplishing what I was trying to do.

    Reply
    1. The Other Dawn

      I can totally relate to this. I often do this when I feel like people aren’t listening or they keep doing the same things incorrectly over and over. It’s a very hard habit to break.

      Reply
      1. Liz

        I’m having this trouble at the moment because we’ve got a new receptionist in our team, it was just me (22yrs old) and my direct manager (50 something) but now we’ve added a 58yr old who comes from a similar field (medical reception to psychological reception) I don’t feel understands all the little things we do so I’m constantly over explaining.

        I have trouble thinking through in my head that even though she’s experienced and way older than me I still need to communicate clearly without making myself feel like I’ve failed some how when she decides to double book clients, or ignore what I said 3hrs ago.

        Reply
        1. Jazzy Red

          If you’re talking about your receptionist, she needs to have consequences for double booking. My former doctor fired his entire staff because they refused to stop doing that. If she’s ignoring your instructions (and if you’re her manager), then you need to have a serious talk with her. If she wants to keep her job, she needs to do so-and-so and such-and-such. If she can’t or won’t do those, then she obviously doesn’t want her job.

          Reply
          1. Another Ellie

            I agree, this sounds like a basic competence issue with her, not a brevity issue with you.

            Reply
  2. April

    I fight with being that long-winded person. I just think you really want to know all the detail.

    It really helped me when I worked with a coach and my boss. We took actual things I’d written and presented, and then condensed them for different audiences (C-level, line manager, etc.).

    It may also help to let him/her know that having the detail prepared and ready to go is needed, but he/she doesn’t need to present all the detail.

    Reply
  3. Anon A

    OP – thank you for trying to help this employee.

    There is a client my team works with that does exactly the same thing. In addition to being long winded and writing novel length emails, she has an bad attitude and does not come across as friendly or cooperative.

    Any time a “Jane’ email is mentioned everyone knows it’s ridiculously long and difficult to decipher. This person has been with the company for a long time and I doubt a boss has ever given her guidance on how to conduct herself.

    She is a smart person, but not well liked and people avoid including her in meetings if possible.

    Good luck with helping your employee. I hope she changes b/c it will help her in the long run.

    Reply
    1. Cassie

      We have someone in our office whose emails aren’t long, but they are hard to decipher, because she tends to be curt and/or rude. It’s a combination of bad attitude, unnecessary defensive-ness, and general abruptness. I don’t think anyone has ever critiqued her writing style. Don’t even get me started on her verbal skills – it’s the same.

      Reply
  4. Anonimal

    I have a staff member just like that. I love her dearly. She’s literally my right hand. I couldn’t do my job without her but she’s a talker. Even if I’m trying to get out the door to the bathroom!

    The problem is she isn’t a “new” employee or even a younger employee. In fact, she’s old enough to be my mother. That’s not the problem. The problem is in that she’s been here for 10+ years with a variety of managers through different reorgs and NO ONE has ever said anything about it.

    There is a part of me that says I really should do something about it but I know she’s getting close to retirement and to be honest, I work around it. If it was a newer employee, I’d follow AAM’s advice to the letter.

    Reply
    1. Not Your Boss

      Pardon the rudeness, but she is not “literally” your right hand.

      Your right hand is literally your right hand.

      Please ignore if you have a person for a right hand.

      Reply
      1. Anonimal

        Nope, she is physically attached to my arm. I have 3 hands. It’s usually pretty helpful but the bathroom stall tends to feel crowded.

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        1. WM

          That is the funniest exchange I have seen all day! Thanks :)

          I have a coworker who has a similar problem, and it drives me batty. She will ask me a question and continue to repeat herself over and over to the point that I have to interrupt her to answer her question… otherwise her “question” could drag on for 5 minutes. Literally. HA.

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  5. RLS

    100% with you on this! I am a wordy person (I don’t comment often on here, but my posts are annoyingly epic). When I’m stressed, I need to vent. When I’m lonely or ecstatic, I write. I’m notorious for sending friends letters out of the blue just because (well, my very closest friends, rather…not all of them). I love debates! I love reading. Scrabble Queen. Words words words!

    I used to write fiction as a personal hobby, and I had a friend beta-read and edit it for me. Her feedback helped a LOT with my efficiency. I gradually understood how long it took me to illustrate something or reach a point, and learned that way. OP, perhaps pay attention to the grammar she uses as well — passive voice is a big sucker for time.

    It’s hard on both ends! Once I understood how annoying and incomprehensible my rambling was to others, it became a priority to reduce it — for professional and personal reasons. It’s embarrassing and something I have to constantly keep in check.

    It’s just something that has to “click.” She really isn’t aware how long-winded she is. I applaud you for trying to help her; it’s not easy!

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth West

      I’m a writer too (although it’s not a hobby for me). Writing shorter is much harder!

      I think sometimes in business communications people want to sound important and knowledgeable. They puff it up with extra words and complex sentences. Completely unnecessary.

      Reply
  6. Cheryl

    I am a high functioning Aspergers individual and would so appreciate this type of coaching as when folks hint or beat around the bush about what they want, invariably I come to the wrong conclusion. For example: Telling me to be professional in my communication is rather subjective and truly does not tell me what you are expecting. I need examples to understand what you are trying to convey to me.
    And the phrases, “You’re old enough to know this”, or when I bluntly answer the question without the sugar coating doesnt automatically mean I was rude and when you tell me I was…I have no idea what you are talking about. In my mind, you asked a question and I answered it in the same matter of fact tone, so I dont understand how I was rude.

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    1. EnnVeeEl

      This! My son also has Aspergers. I tend to be wordy – so he is teaching me to get to the point and be more clear.

      As for the bluntness – it’s one of my favorite things about him because it is almost always hilarious.

      In your case, most people will be okay with you being straightforward. You will always rub the person who needs everything sugar-coated the wrong way. And to me, some of that is their problem.

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      1. Chinook

        Seeing you mention bluntness makes me wonder if the person thinks that being brief would be rude? Or that she needs to use more formal language when presenting to those in authority. If this ends up being the case, you may want to tell her to be rude because her version of rude may still be polite.

        Reply
      2. Anon

        Slightly off the topic, but… I was mentioning to some friends that I thought I might be “naturally” not nice in some ways because when I respond to emails at work, my inclination is to be somewhat terse. I usually write my answer to the person’s question, but before I send it, I need to go back and add in the nice stuff, like “I hope you’re doing well” for someone I haven’t seen in a while, “thanks for your question,” etc. I also sometimes have to change some sentences to make them not so terse. I recently started signing off with “Best regards” because I thought it might help make my emails seem more friendly. My friends told me that everyone does this. I had no idea! I thought I was just grumpy (or self-centered) because I had to remember to make my emails friendly and pleasant.

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    2. OneoftheMichelles

      1. telling someone to behave “more professionally” is very vague if they have not already described the problem…Go ahead and ask them for examples when they don’t offer them (people without Asperger’s get frustrated by this too)

      2. telling you that you ought to know something because of age could be said kindly, as in “someone should have pointed this out to you; you need/deserve to know”…and then explain it so you’re no longer ignorant.

      Or it could be said by a thoughtless jerk in a blaming way. One who doesn’t realize that plenty of highly intelligent, socially successful people have reached old age without learning a particular, common, social skill.
      (For example: I work with a guy who has amassed a million dollars by age 40, is very health conscious, and has a girl friend. But he drives away and leaves me standing in the dark parking lot when we close up our office at night. Everyone else I close with starts their cars and we wait to make sure that both closers are safe before we drive off. No one’s ever pointed out the politeness of watching out for each others’ safety to him.)

      3. The frankness = rudeness thing really bugs me too!
      If it’s just certain people accusing you of this, it’s them. If people you normally get along well with say you’ve offended them, then make it clear that you don’t want to hurt their feelings and ask for suggestions on how you might’ve said things differently.

      Reply
      1. Jessa

        The guy who doesn’t wait for you in the parking lot does not think of safety the same way as a woman and needs to be told this. He’s not being rude, he doesn’t realise that for women this is a nightly issue.

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      2. Andrew

        “No one’s ever pointed out the politeness of watching out for each others’ safety to him.”

        Why don’t you do so, since it’s your safety that is at issue?

        Also, am I misreading you, or are you suggesting that a 40-year-old has reached “old age?”

        Reply
      3. Jazzy Red

        I agree with the 2 posters above.

        I once worked in an industrial building and had to park my car way out in the back. It was in a not-very-safe part of town, and I asked my boss if I could get a parking place closer to the building. He asked if I would feel more comfortable if he gave me a flashlight, and I said I would feel more comfortable if he gave me a gun. I got the closer parking place.

        Just tell your boss that it makes you uncomfortable to be left alone in the parking lot when you close, and ask if he would mind waiting until you get your car started.

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    3. Elizabeth West

      Examples are good for everyone, not just those with Asperger’s. What you said about people saying “be more professional” means nothing to someone who has never learned business writing. I can almost hear them thinking “Be more professional…HOW??”

      Reply
    4. mortorph

      +1

      One of the things I am always saying is: “How is someone going to meet expectations when they don’t know what those expectations are?”

      Reply
  7. EEM

    This is great advice, especially point #3. I also struggle with this problem and in my case, it’s because the way that I think things through and understand things is to know all of those little details, so I often just assume everyone else does too. I’m still working on it, but one thing that helped me initially was having someone sit down with me and look over my work to help me pare it down to what was really important. I also recently completed a master’s program where brevity was encouraged so assignments had strict page limits (or time limits in the case of presentations), which also forced me to learn to cut out a lot of background detail and that’s another thing that’s been really helpful in changing my communication habits . If this is the same issue your employee is dealing with, setting output limits and talking her through her thought process as to what needs to be included will likely help.

    Reply
  8. Yup

    I have a tendency to over-explain, and two things have been helpful personally in working on this. The first is just recognizing how freaking busy others are, especially regarding the volume of communications they receive. Once I saw the epic binder that was sent to my org’s board every quarter, my own written updates for it became much more concise and focused. So it might help to remind her about the audience’s needs — that they only have 10 minutes to listen to her because there are 15 other presentations happening today, or that they receive upwards of 100 emails a day so her’s needs to be short and to-the-point.

    This mindfulness leads to the second thing: thinking about the bottom line or the takeaway. When I write an email, prep a presentation, etc, I ask myself “what is the single most important thing I need someone to know after reading/seeing this?” I think hard about how to convey that thought as clearly and concisely as possible. Like, boiled down to the essence. Then I move that piece to the very front and organize all other content around it. This line of thinking helps solidify in my own mind what I’m *really* trying to say.

    Reply
    1. OneoftheMichelles

      this so explains your screen name :’)
      ps. I copy/pasted your 2nd idea for later ref.

      Reply
    2. Elizabeth West

      “what is the single most important thing I need someone to know after reading/seeing this?”
      Ooh, good tip. I’m going to use that when I”m working on my report assignment for school this weekend.

      Reply
    3. khilde

      Yes, your second paragraph has helped me tremendously, too. I started leading with that and the filling in the details to the extent I was either allowed to (in person) or to the point I felt was sufficient in email after I had already stated the bottom line or overall objective.

      I have found that doing it this way, the people that don’t want extraneous details can cut me off or stop reading after I state the bottom line/objective up front. Or the people that want to hang in there and listen to the rest of the info can do so but they have the main point in their mind the whole time.

      Reply
  9. JR

    Great advice! I feel like this is one thing getting a BA really prepares you for. Profs won’t mark after a certain number of words, so you’re forced to constantly figure out how to say the most, using the least amount of words.

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    1. Runon

      I feel like it was just the opposite. So many things were x number of words or greater or x pages or greater. Frankly my boss won’t read anything more than a page and his boss not more than a paragraph. We have a coworker who is doing schooling for a BA right now and I can tell when she’s taking a class with lots of papers because her writing will get very lengthy.

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      1. Laura B

        This must depend on the school you attend, because my experience was similar to JR’s. My papers usually had a minimum and a maximum requirement, and sometimes only the maximum. I remember this quite vividly because I have trouble with concision.

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      2. JR

        Yeah, I think it varies on the prof./school I had to do like a billion (literally! ha) case studies that HAD to be less than a page. It was insane, but it taught me to be really clear and concise professionally.

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    2. Marina

      I wish I had profs who wouldn’t mark after a certain number of words. All my papers had minimum lengths but no maximum lengths. Except the classes where the profs would get mad if anyone asked how long a paper should be, which I never understood. I definitely had to retrain myself to write concisely when I left college.

      Reply
    3. The IT Manager

      I think this is something that is entirely school/professor dependent. Not all of them took the same stance.

      Reply
      1. Rana

        Exactly. Personally, when I was teaching, I found page lengths a blunt instrument at best, because what they’re really asking for – and using page length to sub in – is a paper of sufficient depth and complexity to accomplish the required task without becoming a wordy, over-complicated mess.

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        1. KellyK

          Same here. Page length isn’t a goal in itself (at least it shouldn’t be). It’s an indication of the level of depth and complexity needed.

          When I was teaching, I always gave a range. I also tried to teach students about writing concisely, though I’m not sure how successful that was.

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    4. -X-

      In my high school there was a teacher who was notorious for, supposedly, wanting very long papers – I think more than 20 pages (double-spaced) as a minimum, and ideal was about 25 pages. That’s a lot in high school, even a very good high school like mine.

      I didn’t believe this was really necessary, and the teacher didn’t actually say it was, so I wrote something longish for me and that could cover the subject, but shorter than what he supposedly wanted – about 15 pages I think. And I did fine on my grade with one of the shortest papers in the class. Also I know someone who added a checkbox around page 20 of his paper with instructions “Please check this box” and the teacher checked the box, so we know he read everything at least up to that point.

      I’m sure paper lengths vary a lot from school to school and class to class, with some teachers/professors not caring, and others suggesting or even requiring certain minimums and maximum.

      Reply
    5. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m sure it does vary by school and by professor, but in editing the writing of recent/semi-recent grads, it’s very common for them to write way too long, and it does seem like they were taught to do that, and that more is somehow better. It’s awful, not only because their stuff is too long and needs to be edited way down, but also because the length allows them to write without tightly organizing their thoughts and really thinking about the key takeaways. And the upshot. So much of the time, I just want the upshot.

      Reply
      1. Jessa

        Oh yes, they were taught to write long. It’s the thing above where Elizabeth West commented that what do you do if a teacher says 5 pages and you can do it in 3? Well you pad like crazy and that’s how you’re taught to write. Not “give me the details in as little space as possible and still be clear,” but “write a lot of unnecessary filler because well that’s what they expect in school.”

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      2. ADE

        +1

        I have to rewrite my interns’ reports all the time to forward them internally. I wish I had tiime to do some business writing coaching with them.

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      3. Dr. Speakeasy

        I find that many (but not all) students think “more is better” and if they just fill the page requirement they should be good. And they leave behind any thought of organization, argument, etc. In my major course I’ve actually significantly shortened the length of the paper and increased the number of sources because it forces them to leave behind the meandering and the bs.

        In other papers though – I’m specifically trying to assess the quality of thought behind the main points. So, I do need those arguments spelled out completely. Is that the way I think students should write a memo for work? No. But I can see how some miss the idea that different forms of writing has different goals.

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      4. crum

        Just a thought Allison – From my intern days, wordy was a defense mechanism for not knowing what was really truly important and being afraid of missing the mark.

        Better wordy & accidentally get the correct nuance in there somehow, than out of a job for seeming like not knowing what’s up seemed logical to fear based interns in a shaky job market.

        It takes confidence to state upfront what you think the upshot is, whilst lacking perspective and not knowing how to get it.

        Reply
  10. Jamie

    I’m in the horribly long winded if allowed to ramble while typing club – like I need to tell people here that.

    It’s never been a problem for me while speaking for some reason – but goodness my early career emails were so….specific…and several hundred pages long.

    I like detail – I like it for reference and when there is a problem more detail is better for IT so we can troubleshoot. Other departments do not work that way.

    When I realized people weren’t reading all the way through my tomes I started bolding the parts they REALLY needed to know. Then it was a short hop to only including the parts which I would have bolded. Boom – sending 5 sentence emails instead of 5 paragraphs and people would read them and ask for clarification if needed.

    Bullet points are everyone’s friend.

    Reply
    1. A Bug!

      I struggle with it more in conversation than writing. I used to be really concise, but I received criticism for being too direct and was instructed to be more chatty with people. So I worked on that.

      Now, I lose track of things and end up having to talk far too much in order to hit the points I need to while also being personable. If I can, I do up a bulleted cheat sheet in advance, which helps, and it’s also had the effect of making it easier to do it on the fly.

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    2. Natalie

      I do something similar to keep from including way too much irrelevant background – I write out everything I want to say, set it aside for 5 minutes, and then go back and think really carefully about which bits are actually important. If I’m still concerned after cutting everything I usually add a sentence like “I have additional background materials available if needed” to the end and trust my colleagues to ask.

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    3. Aimee

      I used to work in customer service in my company and was actually joking with my former boss earlier today about how long-winded I can be. The tickets I wrote from customer calls were practically novels. But nobody could say they had no idea what had really happened in the call if it was one I took!

      Last year, I started really focusing on learning how to convey ideas more briefly and not get so lost in the details if it wasn’t necessary. I don’t always succeed, but I’m getting better at it!

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    4. Windchime

      I agree regarding the bullet points. I got off on the right foot with my new boss by sending him a list of questions in bullet-point format. He loved it!

      I can get wordy in emails, until I realized that I just skim long, wordy emails most of the time. So now I try to be really concise. I also include a screen shot if that helps to illustrate. My goal is to only send emails that really need to be sent, so I want them to be as concise and useful as possible. I do have a co-worker who is the exact opposite of the long-winded person the OP describes. I will ask him a technical question (or series of them ) in an email and get back an answer of “Yes.”. No fluff!

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    5. Kate in Scotland

      The most revelatory short talk I ever went to was the one that explained that not everyone is best persuaded by having all the numbers! I honestly had not understood that not everyone wanted the same thing from a presentation as I would. Luckily that was very early in my career.

      Reply
  11. -X-

    The last part of AAM’s #3 is key. Communication is two-way: delivering and receiving information. Excess information often hurts reception, and interferes with the key messages.

    We don’t have road signs saying “This is the place to stop your car so you do not go in front of crossing traffic.” We have signs that say “stop.”

    Also, if setting limits on length of written information, word count is often better than page count. Page count can lead to perverse formatting to squeeze in more information.

    Reply
  12. EnnVeeEl

    I need to find this article, but I remember reading that many high-level executives, at the C-level, etc., often have learning differences, such as ADHD or dyslexia. Being long-winded or wordy in verbal or written communication is always going to get you in trouble with these folks, because they need things to be very concise. On top of the fact they are super busy!

    I am so glad you want to help this employee with this issue, because it will hurt her long term. Kudos to you for reaching out to find ways to best coach her/him.

    Reply
    1. Laura B

      I remember the article you’re talking about because it really resonated with me. All of a sudden, my boss’ behavior made a lot more sense in an, albeit undiagnosed, ADHD context.

      Reply
    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      For what it’s worth, lots of people without ADHD or dyslexia want things to be very concise too! It’s just a preference of most busy people (and when you’re a senior manager, you’re in a position to insist on it, which is why you see it a lot there). I don’t have dyslexia or ADHD, but long-windedness is a huge pet peeve of mine in employees or job candidates — I want the upshot, quickly.

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      1. Cheryl

        Alternately, my BF has ADHD and is EXTREMELY long-winded because he has to share every. single. thought. I had wondered if that could be one thing happening here as well.

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  13. AC

    I am that long-winded person as well and continually work on tightening up my writing and talking. Working with journalists has helped a lot with that. Be brief, write to your audience, don’t bury the lede.

    One tip that helped me A LOT when learning to condense my emails and talking points was to allow myself to include the phrase, “I can provide more details if you need them, just ask.” It made me feel better about leaving out information I was positive was relevant but in actuality no one really wanted or needed to know. As I got better at condensing, I felt OK with leaving that out.

    Reply
  14. Christine

    I am definitely going to save this post and the comments because I too struggle with brevity, especially in writing (when I speak on the fly, I sometimes just shut down when I get can’t the thoughts out quickly and concisely). My posts on social media and message boards can definitely be novels. Same problem during my job as an Information & Referral specialist a few years ago–I felt so bad for the woman who had to input my I&R call logs into the database!

    One thing I’ve been trying to focus on is using less words in my emails to convey the same thought. I read over my email and cut out any unnecessary extra words or just rephrase it to something shorter. For example, rather than saying “Wakeen will be with me at tonight’s meeting”, say “Wakeen and I will be at tonight’s meeting”. Okay, not the best example I could think of, but you see how much more sense the second sentence makes.

    It takes practice, definitely; but your employee has to be motivated. So I agree…a more serious conversation is in order. Ask her/him “Is this something you’d like to change, but need more help with?” Emphasize the potential impact on her career. But if she seems unwilling to work on this (e.g. dead-set on lengthy communication as her style), I’m not sure what else can be done.

    Ha! Told ya my posts are long! :P

    Reply
  15. Claire

    Alison has excellent advice. Another thing that might benefit this employee is if you give her some structure.

    One of our managers is coaching our sales staff to present situations in bullet points using the following structure:
    Current situation
    Implications
    Next steps.

    This helps people wrap their head around the issue when they are putting it in writing and it makes it clear what’s needed

    It doesn’t work for all situations but it works for a lot of them.

    Reply
  16. Tiff

    I wonder if this lady’s previous boss was a micro-manager. MM’s tend to bring out the fine print in us all.

    Reply
    1. Liz in the City

      +1 OMG yes! My OldBoss was a MM, who would require every little piece of fricking info at every stage, so pretty soon, communications would spiral out of control. Heaven forbid if I didn’t include everything in an email (mind you, I’m pretty Type A, so I was very thorough — this woman just liked to nitpick everything. to. death.)

      NewBoss prefers everything to be concise, as in if I write it in two sentences, it’s almost too long. It’s so refreshing. If he needs more info, he asks in a follow-up.

      Reply
    2. Kate

      Yeah, I had a MM in my first role and became very long winded. I’d provide way too much detail because I knew exactly what questions I’d get (a million), and wanted to avoid those. I’d hand her a document to review that I’d preemptively edited in the columns (“note: confirmed with XYZ”, etc).

      Of course this sounds a little different from the OP’s employee who explains the same thing four times. But your point is a good one.

      Reply
    3. Kelly L.

      Yes! You end up over-explaining things because they’re just going to ask for a defense of every point anyway, so you throw it in proactively.

      Reply
  17. Kou

    I am crazy long-winded and I think all of this would be helpful. It’s really important to understand that she does not have a way of judging whether she’s saying too much, at all. Not one. She has no way of measuring it, and no way of knowing what you or anyone else expects. That’s why just telling her to be brief doesn’t work, she has to have concrete measures to use. I actually follow the exact email length measure Alison suggests, three short paragraphs (3 lines each, tops).

    One thing I find really helps me shorten my writing is to write it out the way I like, then re-read a few times and start shortening the way I’ve worded things or taking out things that don’t seem to important the third time around. It only takes a second (usually, occasionally it’s actually a little time consuming) but you do have to read it over more than twice– I find the more times you read it, the shorter you can make it. The one quick proof most people give an email (or whatever) isn’t enough.

    Reply
  18. Ellie the EA

    One thing some members of our group have started using in emails is BLUF – Bottom Line up Front – one or two sentences conveying what the email is about and then the the more detailed explanation below. They literally write BLUF (in bold or underlined): and then the synopsis. I’ve heard from my boss that upper management really appreciates it.

    Reply
    1. Lindsay

      I totally agree – put the most important info first. Occasionally I do research on policy issues for my boss, and just this week switched to putting the bottom line in the first two sentences, then detail later. She actually stopped by my cube and said, “That email was great. I only needed to read the first sentences to get it. I love it!” She had all the details she needed, but didn’t need to read through it or scroll to the bottom if she was in a hurry.

      Reply
  19. Shawn

    Great advice! You might think about recommending the employee attend a Toastmasters meeting with the goal towards improving work presentations and getting feedback on being more concise in presentation style.

    Reply
      1. CathVWXYNot?

        I was going to say the same thing, and also recommend that the employee try playing around with something like Twitter, which has a very strict character limit and therefore forces users to be very concise. I started using Twitter purely for the social aspect, but to my surprise I found that it really helped me with this aspect of my work; we sometimes have to provide a very short summary of a whole research proposal with a character limit almost as strict as Twitter’s, and I’m the undisputed local champion at making them fit!

        Reply
        1. Kate in Scotland

          Yes, anything with hard limits! I participated in a blogging competition which was for 200 word posts and it was tremendously good for my writing in general.

          Reply
    1. OneoftheMichelles

      this is good…esp: “Can’t make the instructions concise? Maybe the thing you’re explaining needs to change?”

      Reply
    2. Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks for pointing to my preso, HumbleOnion. The page you points to includes both the SlideShare version and a video of the presentation given at the “Write the Docs” conference. Hope others find it helpful, too.

      Reply
  20. Employment lawyer

    She’s not EXPLAINING, she’s LECTURING. An explanation is an adaptive conversation designed to make sure that the listener understands. A lecture is a predetermined speech which stays pretty much the same for everyone.

    I don’t charge for initial consults so I am very focused on efficiently getting enough information to make a yes/no determination. I spend a lot of thought figuring out how to politely and effectively control the potential clients who want to talk for 45 minutes.

    Here’s my basic speech to new clients when they call in with a potential case. Feel free to steal it. Perhaps it’s my personality, but it always seems to work.

    Client:

    Much of what I do revolves around details. But until I know the framework of an issue, I can’t know which details are important–and we may be talking about irrelevant facts. So here is how I usually run these intakes.

    Every story has a 10 second version (“I think my boss is harassing me because he said _____”); a 30 second version(“…we were in a bar last Friday, and…”); a very long version (…I started working there back in 2009, and since then…”), and so on.

    I would like you to start with the 5 second version so I can get my mind around the ballpark problem. If there’s a lack of detail that’s OK.

    After that, I would like the 15 second version so that I can start thinking about what details I should be listening for.

    After that, we’ll have a quick conversation. I will probably want to hear more, and if so I’ll tell you what types of details I’m looking for. Then I will want to hear the long version–though even there I may redirect you so that I can make sure to keep this efficient.

    Do you understand? Thank you. Please begin with the short version.

    Reply
      1. OneoftheMichelles

        “But until I know the framework of an issue, I can’t know which details are important–and we may be talking about irrelevant facts. ”
        Thank You Thank You Thank You Thank You…!!!
        I’ve had a communications problems-For Years-in one part of my life and this is what nobody’s been able to point out to me.
        So glad I read all the posts today!
        Employment lawyer is the coolest!

        Reply
        1. Employment lawyer

          Glad to help.

          Most of us can only pay attention to so many details at a time. So it’s immensely helpful to set out the framework FIRST, so that we know what to look for.

          Here’s a great example:

          Imagine you’re a college freshman. On your first day of school, you arrive at a lecture on Charles Darwin, but you have no idea what course it’s for. You don’t know whether you’re supposed to be:

          (a) learning about the scientific basis for evolution, for BIO 101;
          (b) learning about historical modes of travel and life on his ship, for History 101;
          (c) learning about the conflict between his thoughts and the then-current religious leaders, for Religion 101;
          (d) learning about Darwin’s individual thought processes and beliefs, for Philosophy 101; or
          (e) learning about growth rates and differentials, for Math 101.

          Could you take notes without knowing what the lecture was about? No, not unless you have a 100% perfect memory–and none of us do. If you don’t know what to listen for, you’ll “waste” attention on irrelevant things, and fail to attend to important things.

          That example is a good illustration of why a framework is needed, and most college-educated folks will understand it.

          Reply
    1. Lexy

      Employment Lawyer, my husand is also an attorney and tells me the same thing about rambling clients. He’s not in employment law, but he does a fair amount of family law and has said that so often people Just. Want. To. Vent. at him. Which is fine I guess… but I don’t think they realize they’re paying several hundred dollars an hour to hear their own voice.

      I like your framing of thinking about the 10-second, 30-second, & 5-minute versions of stories, works so well across many applications.

      Reply
    2. A lawyer

      Oh my goodness, this is so helpful. Interviewing clients who are in police custody is a WHOLE different ballgame of rambling and incoherence. I was trying to work out why a client was in custody the other day and he was barely sober, with a 20 year history of offending. He wanted to detail it all, while being barely able to remember any details at all.

      I then had to deal with someone who wanted to represent himself, but had a historic head injury so had some big anger management problems and was, again, obsessed with detail.

      Your approach would have been so helpful in both cases.

      Reply
  21. NatalieR

    You might suggest that she make a short outline of points to make before speaking, and once she’s hit them all, she stops – no need to repeat and then summarize.

    I am a huge fan of rereading a sentence and cutting extra words, starting with anything that weakens your point: “I think,” “maybe,” “might,” “kind of.” Next, get rid of adverbs and adjectives, instead using a better verb or noun.

    Reply
    1. Ruffingit

      That’s a great suggestion Natalie about the outline of points. Easy way to help her know when to stop. And it’s important to tell her that she gets one bite at the apple – she is not allowed to rephrase or repeat the points either.

      Reply
  22. Ruffingit

    I once worked for a woman (who owned the company) who was horrendously long-winded. It was so bad that meetings that should have taken 30 minutes literally took 3 hours. Staff meetings could end up as an all-day affair. It was horrible.

    People tried to make her aware of the problem, tried to help her with it, but she never changed. And of course being the company owner meant she didn’t have to change. She loved the sound of her own voice, she loved being in charge and damn it, people were going to listen to her!! That was her attitude. She had a great many issues with self-esteem.

    In any case, I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of this kind of thing and it’s not fun. The bigger problem for the woman the OP mentions is that no only do people lose interest for her, they lose respect a lot of the time because the long-winded person becomes the butt of jokes and it’s all downhill from there.

    Reply
    1. Wong

      I have a more colleague from another department at work who is like this. A simple discussion that might’ve taken only 10 minutes would drag out into 30-40 minutes due to his long-windedness and we simply don’t have that luxury of time.

      Later on, I tried telling him at the start that I had only a limited amount of time. Quite often, though, when he was rambling on and repeating himself, I would (and I’m not proud to confess this) lose my cool and cut him off and raise my voice at him over the phone.

      Reply
  23. CatB

    Ah, the pleasures of a long-winded speech pattern! I have a friend who loved the spaghetti-style communication (his phrases were much like a bowl of long, very long spaghetti). We were business partners and he lost almost every client around second 60 or so, which was bad for business. So, being friends, when we were alone I started interrupting him after 4 or 5 sentences with a “The essence of it being…?” interrogation. That helped somewhat, together with his understanding that every redundant word was losing money. Perhaps not applicable in OP’s situation, but it worked for me so there you have it.

    Reply
    1. Rana

      Yeah, my husband will do this if I make the mistake of asking something that he knows a lot about (we call this dropping a coin in the jukebox – everyone’s got a different playlist, but the effect is usually the same).

      What I’ve learned to do is to ask for the “three sentence version” – which signals to him that I’m idly curious, not deeply interested, in the subject.

      Another technique, which is best used in situations where you either have authority over the person or they’re not easily offended, is to cut them off part-way through the ramble with a brief summary of the main point, then immediately direct conversation to someone else:

      “So, Jane, what you’re saying is that the widgets should be ready Monday, barring complications? Right? Okay, Wakeen, what’s the situation with your part of the project?”

      (I had a student who loved to digress on top of digressions, and this was the only way I could get through to him. It took a semester of classes doing this, but by the end he could make a single point, without going into a bunch of side topics on the way.)

      Reply
      1. Chinook

        I work with a student who could easily digress and, because of our relationship, I gave his family a copy of “Up” and then would say “squirrel” whenever he got off topic.

        Reply
        1. sour than sweet

          +1000

          Ever since that movie came out, all my friends and family have been doing it to me whenever I go off topic!!!

          Me: “Where do you guys want to go for lun– ZOMGAPUPPY!”
          All: “Squirrel!!”

          Reply
      2. Kelly L.

        Yes! I have a friend I’ve had to do that with. If I don’t ask specifically for a really brief summary, I’ll get a dissertation. Coin in the jukebox is such a great way to put it! I’ve been calling it accidentally pressing the exhaustive information button, which isn’t nearly as catchy.

        Reply
        1. Ruffingit

          I knew someone who would go in-depth when asked a question so I would start off with “Remember, I just want to know what time it is, I don’t need to know how the watch works.”

          Reply
  24. Jen @ ModernHypatia

    I’ve fought for a long time with being lengthy, and a few of the things I’ve done that help:

    – Force editing for brevity: when I write something like a blog post, I write it, then roll a random number generator, and force myself to trim it by that many percent. (I usually use 10-35). Not knowing the number in advance makes it harder to game in my head.

    – For new kinds of writing (or a kind I’m working on improving), having a model really helps me. It gives me not just a length, but also an idea about structure and the level of detail.

    – Periodic feedback from someone I trust to be on my side. Sometimes that’s a boss or a co-worker. Sometimes it’s running it by a friend in a different field. (My internal editor now sounds like one of my best friends, with a bunch of writing-for-journalism experience.)

    – I also found I got hyper sensitive about it for a while. I had to deliberately give myself spaces where I don’t self-police this as heavily. (Personal online journal spaces, writing going to people who mostly like lots of words, etc.) That makes it easier to be rigorous at work/collaborative projects/etc. when it matters more.

    Reply
  25. Ash

    I hate it when one of AAM’s letters reminds me of me! I can be long-winded in many respects. When I’m writing, I think I need to say a lot because the other person might have questions and I hate having a lot of back-and-forth, so I just want everything to be done all at once. When I’m talking and someone asks me a question, I get really anxious and feel like I have to defend myself. I got picked on a lot growing up (and have dealt with awful harpy shrew co-workers), and I have anxiety issues, so I feel like I have to keep babbling to get people to leave me alone.

    My husband has helped me work on this, and his favorite phrase is “too many words”. Now what I do when I write is write everything I want to get out, and then condense from there. I can turn three paragraphs into one, just by realizing that I’m either being redundant or verbose. With speaking, I just answer the question in the shortest possible way, even if it takes me a moment to think about my response. It’s helped me a lot, especially with my anxiety.

    Good on the OP for being willing to help their co-worker!

    Reply
  26. OP

    Wow! Thanks everyone – such valuable information and so quickly! I am sitting down with her today so will see how I can bring some of this to our conversation. I’m actually excited to see how it turns out, so I’ll keep you posted!

    Reply
  27. Anonymous

    Ok, so I am working on this issue myself but I am doing it in THERAPY!

    Sometimes the reasons we do things are so deep seated that we don’t even understand, why no matter how hard we try to stop doing it. I needed someone professionally who could help me see 1) what I was doing and 2) try and figure out why, and 3) also know that this is very common (whew!) and 4) just finally decide to stop doing it.

    For me, there were/are some underlying anxiety issues that only I can fix really, and so I am fixing them. So far, I am working on listening 80% of the time, and talking maybe 20% in any given interchange.

    Sometimes we can get so ingrained in dysfunctional behavior that we need outside (and benevolent) help to get ourselves unstuck. It’s hard work, and not for the faint of heart, but it’s definitely worth it.

    Reply
    1. Natalie

      Anxiety could definitely be a factor. I work with someone who seems to be exceptionally long winded and repeat-y when he is anxious.

      Reply
      1. Jen in RO

        I have a coworker who can be very brief and clear in emails or in our native language, but gets soooo long winded in English. I think he’s not confident in his English skills so he repeats everything 3 times to make sure there are no misunderstandings.

        Reply
    2. Ruffingit

      Good for you for being willing to work on the issue in therapy! Anxiety can cause a lot of problems conversationally and otherwise. It’s great that you’re willing to look at it and make some changes because you’re right – it’s not for the faint of heart.

      Reply
  28. The IT Manager

    “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

    – Blaise Pascal. Something similar also attributed to Mark Twain

    Point is, being concise can be work. Encourage your employee to do the work. I think AAM gave awesome advice here.

    Reply
  29. fposte

    Alison’s point about making the *cost* of this practice clear is crucial–this tends to be a defensive practice by people who don’t have a “that’s enough” meter of their own and figure that safety lies in piling the stuff on (I totally recognized the “pretty adamant about keeping a lot of information in” response). But she’s not covering herself, she’s putting herself at risk by this, and understanding that is going to help give her the motivation to make the necessary changes in habit.

    Reply
  30. Malissa

    I had the most awesome business communications instructor back in college. She introduced me to the KISS principle. Keep It Simple Stupid.
    Rude title, but very effective. The idea that parted were to keep things as simple as possible. This allows for clarity and brevity.
    If people want more information, they will ask for it. Then you can have an interactive conversation that will be more meaningful for both parties.

    Reply
    1. Malissa

      Good grief what happened to my sentence? “The idea is to keep things as simple as possible”

      Reply
  31. AH

    I struggle with #3 sometimes in meetings with my boss. I’ll see her eyes gloss over if I’ve gone too far and just think “Oh god! The point! Must get to the point!”

    Reply
  32. Diane

    Another good technique: give her articles, emails, and briefs of various lengths with instructions to summarize, first to half the length, then half again, and finally to a paragraph or even three short sentences. Show her examples of how you read, make decisions about what is important, and paraphrase in simple, clear terms.

    Reply
  33. CindyB

    This is more useful advice than that given to me by a manager nearly 10 years ago:

    “Cindy, do you realise that within 20 seconds of opening your mouth you put people to sleep?”

    Ouch. That was brutal.

    While I would not recommend such a frank approach, over time I have realised it was the most useful feedback I’ve received.

    Reply
  34. BookWorm

    It might help if she joined Toastmasters.

    One of the skills Toastmasters teaches is to give a presentation within the alloted time.
    Presentations include “Table Topics” – which are impromptu speaches of SHORT duration.

    Reply
  35. darsenfeld

    People learn, process and think differently.

    The OP as a manager should understand that, as it’s one of the first principles of interrelating with people in work settings (well life, if one thinks about it).

    In honesty, I think the OP is at fault and not the employee. I feel you should get together with the employee and discuss mutual expectations in how you communicate. If the employee needs detailed instructions, so be it. It doesn’t mean s/he is a bad employee, it simply means that is the nature of his or her thought and reasoning. The contrary applies, since all managers have different communication styles.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No, the employee needs to learn how to communicate concisely and efficiently, and in the way that her managers and the senior leadership prefers. If people tune out what she’s saying and she gets a reputation for not being able to convey information efficiently, it will hold her back in her career.

      Long-windedness is a real problem; it will prevent her from being taken seriously and listened to.

      Reply
    2. Chloe

      But the OP is not talking about what kind of instructions the employee needs, she is talking about how the employee communicates with other people.

      Two completely different things.

      Reply
    3. sour than sweet

      While I agree that everyone has their own unique way of learning, I disagree that this is any way the OP’s fault or that the OP needs to just accept this behavior. I think it’s wonderful that this particular employee has someone like the OP watching out for her and taking the time to give her all this feedback.

      I’m notorious for rambling on and on. Every day I struggle with speaking and writing more concisely. This means I may have to rewrite an email a few times before I send it. Or check in with the other person more often (e.g., “Did you already hear about…” or “Did that all make sense?”).

      Yes, it’s uncomfortable and time-consuming. But I do this not only for my own benefit, but also because it shows other people that I respect their time and their input. I’m onto my third paragraph, so I’m going to stop now. :)

      Reply
  36. ThursdaysGeek

    As a listener, I wish there were a nice way to tell this to a few of my friends. I have no authority, it’s not part of business, and I know them well enough that if I am not very careful, they will be hurt.

    But two of them say the same thing over and over and over. With one, I am barely given a chance to give the responses she expects so she knows I’m listening (just breathe!). When I do respond, indicating I understand, both repeat it several more times, with several assurances of understanding from me before they move on.

    Another has the opposite problem, and skips all over the place. I think she thinks part of the conversation and only speaks part, assuming I know the parts that she’s thinking. I don’t always understand, but I listen and that’s what she wants.

    Reply
    1. Anonymously Anonymous

      Oh, I’m a listener too and I have a couple of long winded friends. Opposites attract, right? One is my workout partner. Which is great because it makes the time go by faster. I don’t mind her chatting away there but s few years ago we worked together and it was exhausting. The other, I met at my children’s bus stop. Day one I found myself in a 30 min conversation after the bus had left. Slowly I purposely stopped walking the kids to the bus stop and starting driving them to the bus stop and then pretending I had errands to run.

      Reply
  37. Elizabeth West

    I had a boss like this. He would say something and then go back over it again and again. If you said anything or started to zone out, he would get pissy. I hated asking him a question because it took me twenty minutes to get an answer and get back to my desk.

    Reply
  38. Joey

    Record her! (With her knowledge of course). Either with a video camera (ideally) or with a voice recorder. When you play it back for her give her an outline of her points and ask her to clock how long it took for her to get through your short points. Do this with her a few times with the goal of however long you think it should take.

    I had someone like this and watching herself lose the audience hit home. I tried everything, but nothing worked nearly as well.

    Reply
    1. Joey

      Another thing. She had no idea how long she was really taking. I told her she was dragging on, but she didn’t realize in time what that equated to.

      Reply
      1. Jessa

        Exactly, it may also be an issue of the employee has no idea HOW long they’re talking. Put a clock with a 2nd hand where they can see it. Make them look at it. Get a sense for this. The recording works very well. Although I’d probably get blanket consent and record one time when the employee does not know it. Knowledge of WHEN the recording will happen might skew the behaviour for a one time trial.

        Reply
  39. Chocolate Teapot

    I learnt how to condense text. The biggest issue was always deciding what to keep, but I found asking myself “Is this relevant?” and that seemed to help.

    Reply
  40. Josh S

    Anyone else think it’s a bit ironic that Alison’s answer to this question is one of her longest, most detailed responses?

    Don’t get me wrong–it’s entirely appropriate and helpful. Just the difference in context/purpose is funny, that’s all.

    Reply
    1. Beth

      Funny, I just began my comment with that observation! It is entirely appropriate and illustrates that long isn’t necessarily bad. It also, though, makes me question whether there is anything wrong with many of the long communications to which the OP refers. I don’t think the context/purpose here is necessarily fundamentally different from an employment context, when it comes to appropriate communication.

      Reply
  41. J.R.

    So glad this was discussed here! In the past I have struggled with feelings that I talk too much. I realized that the root of it, as other posters mentioned, is that I don’t trust others attention or competence to be on level with mine. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. When talking to senior management this has never been an issue but with peers it used to be. I then grew out of it by working on myself. It wasn’t really being “long winded” for the sake of just talking but I would repeat myself or send follow emails unnecessarily because I was concerned others would not take my instructions correctly and mess something up that would fall back on me! It’s a personality flaw that I feel I have dealt with really well, but it is also a trait of a worker who cares a whole lot about their work and the success of the company!

    Reply
  42. LoneContractor

    I’m surprised nobody has used the Pascal quote…

    “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

    Who should be spending more time on the message- the presenter or the audience?

    Woodrow Wilson has a great similar quote that I just found when asked how long it took him to prepare a speech.

    “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

    Reply
  43. khilde

    I think all the advice has been great so far. A few things that have occurred to me and in honor of the topic I’ll try to limit it to bullet points.

    — She could be someone that processes things outside her head rather than inside her head. I’m that way. Pointing that out to her might help her realize that’s what she’s doing when she’s doing it. I tend to circle the drain when I’m processing information because I can’t decide if I mean something until I hear myself say it and to see what impact/reaction I get from someone else. I also tend to repeat myself as a way to reinforce to myself what I mean. Of course, it’s still her responsibilty to realize when she needs to rein that in. What has helped me is to tell the people in my life when my thoughts aren’t fully formed and I just need them to listen a few minutes so I can figure out what I mean. I think this has helped the “internal processers” not get so annoyed with me. Again – she needs to definitely get that under control in the business setting, but maybe she can have some self awareness and let you know when she’s needing to process and when she just needs to get to the point.

    2 — Do you naturally take a few moments to collect your thoughts and respond when it’s your turn? I have had two people in my life that were like this and it really unnerved me, which caused me to keep talking, which caused them to not respond, which made me think I should keep talking, which just spiraled into a really awkward exchange. But they were honestly waiting for me to be done completely so they could speak. But between the time I was done speaking and the time they started speaking could be several long, weird seconds so I’d just keep talking to fill the space. Does that make any sense? It took awareness on my part (again, I agree the ownus is on her) to realize when I just needed to shutup and then expect the few seconds of awkward silence before the other person starts talking.

    3 — Some have suggested cutting her off. I don’t disagree that can be effective in some situations where time is an issue and you really need the bottom line. But I’d be cautious of doing that as an ongoing tactic or as a way to prove the point. Because if she’s anything like me (like I mentioned in #1), then that would probably fluster her and it would be like hitting the reset button. I might start talking all over again (!) or I’d really lose my train of thought and become even more coherent. So, just something to consider.

    Reply
    1. khilde

      Boo. I hate following up with a correction to my typos, but this one is relevant.

      3 — Some have suggested cutting her off. I don’t disagree that can be effective in some situations where time is an issue and you really need the bottom line. But I’d be cautious of doing that as an ongoing tactic or as a way to prove the point. Because if she’s anything like me (like I mentioned in #1), then that would probably fluster her and it would be like hitting the reset button. I might start talking all over again (!) or I’d really lose my train of thought and become even LESS coherent. So, just something to consider.

      Reply
  44. Beth

    I see a little irony here… the response from AAM is one of the longest I have ever seen on here! And, it illustrates that long isn’t always bad.

    One possible issue that that some things can only be made so concise… “concise” is both brief (relatively speaking) AND comprehensive. It’s not just brief. Some information can only properly be conveyed with a lot of words. Bullet points often leave out crucial information. To me bullet points are sort of short-hand, and imply that the information will be elaborated on later.

    As anyone who has read some of my posts on here can tell, I can tend to write long communications. I’ve never texted an employer/coworker, and this “long-windedness” doesn’t usually spill over into in-person communications. In my line of work, adequate explanations often need to be long. There’s no way around it – either the issue needs to be written out or discussed at length. I also have realized (as others have said) that I’ve tended towards this behavior even more when I don’t think that people are comprehending the issue. This was a huge problem when I departed from my usual large employers and worked a tiny non-profit in which I was the only person actually trained in and with experience in the field of the non-profit. But, it also happened at a larger employer when I felt like people often didn’t look at an issue from any more than just one perspective and had a hard time understanding possible ramifications of actions. I TA’ed in college and learned quickly that information needs to be conveyed in a number of different ways in order for everyone to understand. I almost exclusively limit these lengthy communications to e-mail because e-mails can be read at the convenience of the reader.

    I also really have to ask whether the OP’s perspective is necessarily the accurate one. Every now and then I comment on news sites, and find that if I write even one long paragraphs, some people post annoyed comments calling my post a “novel” and saying they didn’t bother to read it because it was so long. Well, I had made good points without repeating myself. Some people just have short attention spans and don’t like to read large blocks of text. Some people also do not really notice subtle differences in points people are making and so they don’t understand that the person IS actually being as concise as they can be.

    I know that in business, brevity is important, and she needs to communicate in the preferred style (while ultimately still being able to keep all relevant information in her communications.) Maybe let her know that initial communications should be brief. Explain to her that just a summary is needed. I wouldn’t try to completely squash her tendency to be detailed and thorough, which is not necessarily a bad tendency. If no one was ever detailed, the world would probably (literally) fall apart. Perhaps explain that X (some VP to whom she is presenting or sending an e-mail, or whatever) only needs to know A, B, and C, while someone else working on the project needs all of the details.

    One other thing comes to mind, related to people tuning her out when she speaks. Is it possible she has Asperger’s Syndrome? I had both a roommate and a coworker with it. People with this form of autism are often very smart but they are very literal and can’t read body language and often don’t understand other conventions. They basically need to memorize “rules” of socially-acceptable behavior.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I don’t think anyone is saying that it’s never appropriate to write something longer. Rather, the OP is saying — correctly — that there are plenty of times when short is what’s called for. The OP says that the employee “says the same thing in three different ways, and then summarizes again,” and that people are tuning her out. That’s a problem. It’s not an indictment of length in all cases, only in some, and those are the ones the OP is concerned about.

      Reply
      1. Beth

        I’ve read through the comments and it seems that people are saying that length is rarely appropriate and seems to always be equated with the inclusion of irrelevant information.

        I do still wonder whether the employee is making the same point in three ways, in which case it may be to make sure everyone grasps the concept, or whether he/she is making subtly different points which are being missed by the audience.

        Either way management has a preferred style so I agree the expectations need to be laid out for the employee.

        Reply
  45. HS

    It is right that a person should not be too long-winded.
    But be careful: it is not because a person is brief, that he/she is also to-the-point. Those are 2 completely different things. A person can be brief, but the content can still be a load of bullshit – which I personally often see in the workplace as well.
    On the other hand, details have to be taken into account by higher management when important. Managers sometimes make important decisions based on half information…

    Reply
  46. Anthony Phoenix

    I’m really happy that I read this story. I have been a part of many research meetings and sometimes the guest will answer questions they took extra time to explain details that weren’t needed, extending the meeting time. The organization I have these meetings with our teams we rehearse modeling how we ask questions to keep them short, but perhaps we should just say I’m the beginning of the meeting how we are seeking brief answers. Thanks again for your response and I’m looking forward sharing copies of this with some do the other leaders in the organization I work with.

    Reply

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