how can I be more concise at work?

A reader writes:

I am a contracts manager for a Fortune 500 company; I would liken my position to that of a paralegal.

I work for the vice president of sales for my business unit. Because the nature of my job is words, I can be quite “wordy.” However, I try to remember to keep things brief with him because at his level and higher, that’s the way it is.

In my 2015 year-end performance review, despite my efforts to the contrary, he dinged me for “not being concise enough” in my communications – written and verbal. He has now asked me to put together a plan for my 2016 performance management to address. He wants to meet with me next week to discuss my plan and I am panic-stricken. Do you have any suggestions for such a plan?

Ooooh, I do! I tend to find long-windedness pretty frustrating, so I’m excited for the chance to help someone put together a plan to tackle it.

I can’t tell whether your boss has given you feedback on this in the past and is now resorting to a more formal plan because the earlier feedback hasn’t worked, or whether this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Either way, I’d take it seriously, but especially if it’s the former, approach this with the attitude that it’s truly a business necessity to resolve, rather than just a stylistic quirk or preference. Sometimes people who tend toward long-windedness see it as “simply their way” and not a big deal … but it can actually be a serious issue that can make them less efficient and even frustrating to work with, so you want to show that you get that.

In any case, I don’t think your plan has to be long (in fact, given the subject matter, it probably shouldn’t be!). If you were my employee, I’d just want to hear the following:

1. In both written and in-person communication, you’ll focus on high-level takeaways, and save background, context, and details for when/if they’re specifically requested.

2. You’ll be vigilant about starting with what the point of the conversation or email is — for example, “this is just FYI,” “I’m seeking your input about question X,” or “I need your approval for action Y.”

3. Whenever possible, you’ll keep your emails to 1-2 paragraphs and use bullet points to make them even more easily digestible. You’ll review emails before sending them with an eye toward where you can trim them down.

4. You’ll be watchful about how long you speak in meetings and other in-person conversations and will strive to give short overviews or summaries rather than complete briefings (unless complete briefings are requested). Where possible, you’ll do some “pre-thinking” before these meetings — meaning that you’ll think through ahead of time what the most important things you need to convey are, so that you can present those from the outset rather than thinking out loud (if the latter has been a problem).

And of course, follow the rules above in presenting this plan! It really doesn’t need to be much longer than what I have above, although you might also ask your boss for input about other steps that he thinks will help.

{ 253 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Eric

    “3. Whenever possible, you’ll keep your emails to 1-2 paragraphs and use bullet points to make them even more easily digestible. You’ll review emails before sending them with an eye toward where you can trim them down.”

    When I’ve felt awkward being this brief, adding a phrase such as “Please let me know if you would like more details”, has made me feel better about keeping out some of the fat from the e-mail than I would have naturally been.

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      I know someone with a 3-sentence rule who communicates quite well.

      Two paragraphs when one sentence would do would qualify as being too wordy too.

      Reply
    2. danr

      Yes! and most of the time you won’t get asked for more information. And if you do get asked, keep it brief and to the point again. My last manager introduced this technique to me and it worked nicely.

      Reply
    3. LBK

      Yes, or I’ll say “feel free to give me a call/swing by if you want to talk through it in more detail”.

      Reply
    4. Graciosa

      Alison’s advice kind of surprised me – mostly because 1-2 paragraphs seems like a very long email to me.

      My experience is that you have only as much space as will appear on one screen (no scrolling) of a mobile phone being used to check email. If the recipient is busy, they are not going to scroll and may never return to it.

      Tolerance for lengthy messages is inversely related to rank in my company. Executives just don’t have that much time.

      My emails to executives tend to read, “Bob, please reply and approve new price of $32K for widget.”

      If Bob had a question, he’s likely to reply, “Same specs?” Note that this is not even a whole sentence.

      I think the LW should discuss with her boss using a one-phone-screen test for email. It’s not appropriate for every company or every level, but it does force you to get to the point.

      Reply
        1. Anxa

          I wonder if this is one of the reasons email can be a divisive form of communication. People access and create their emails on different devices and in different ways.

          If I send an email late in the evening, there’s no expectation that the person would return that email immediately, but as soon as they make a point to check mail.

          Someone may assume I’m ignoring them if I don’t check my email for a few hours. Also, I email from the comfort of a keyboard. Others may be trying to type on a screen.

          That said, I can’t imagine going into my email and not being willing to scroll. I guess the screen size would matter.

          Reply
        2. Graciosa

          I’ve never measured exactly, but I assume a couple lines at most (probably varies by model and display settings).

          I don’t want to convey the impression that there is a blanket, stated refusal to scroll – it’s just what actually happens at certain levels if you take the time to observe. There are roles in which you receive more email than you will ever be able to respond to, and the people in them are constantly assessing if the message in front of them is something they can handle quickly.

          I try to make it very easy for them to do so and give me what I need.

          Reply
    5. JeanLouiseFinch

      Bullet points and numbered lists are a good idea. If you know you will need more than 2 pages to make all of your points, start with an outline. Your communications may need less elaborations if the ideas “flow.” Avoid repetitions of ideas like the plague, with one exception. If you are drafting a one or two issue memorandum, answer the questions prompted by the issues right in the first paragraph, then do the analysis, issue by issue. If there are more than 3 issues, it might be helpful to separate your work into 2-3 shorter documents.

      Reply
    6. Jean

      This column wins the Jean Bookmark Award (first-ever bestowal, right here right now)!
      Thank you, AAM community, for all the wisdom I will read tomorrow.
      Please advise if you would like more details.

      –Jean (winner of way too many Make-It-Shorter Awards)

      Reply
    7. Lindsay J

      Yup, I’ve been using, “Please let me know if you need anything else,” as a boilerplate phrase at the end of my emails.

      Reply
  2. Rusty Shackelford

    Regarding #2, this is one of the most useful things I learned in a business writing class. State what you want, very specifically, at the beginning of your communication. “I propose that we do X. Here is how it will benefit us.” And yes, the bulleted list is a fantastic tool as well.

    Reply
    1. Chalupa Batman

      This is my favorite tip for this. I’m also wordy to a fault, partially because I’m prone to thinking that alllll of the context is necessary. I have to remind myself that it’s not-90% of the time no one cares about that stuff. Saying exactly what I want up front ensures that the person doesn’t stop reading before they figure out why I e-mailed them and helps me focus my attention on the purpose of the message. I won’t lie and say I’m super concise now that I’ve figured this out, but I definitely get the result I want on the first try more often.

      Reply
      1. Ann Furthermore

        Oh man, I struggle with this too. I’m an IT nerd that supports Oracle. It’s a hugely complicated system, and my area of expertise is a particularly complex application. When I’m talking via email with people about it, it’s so easy for me to put in alllll this detail that the recipients not only don’t care about, but probably don’t completely understand, since they’re not as immersed in it as I am. I have to step back and ask myself if they really need to know about things that it’s just second nature for me to talk about. I’m certainly not perfect, but I am aware of it, so that’s something I guess.

        Reply
    2. Charlie

      I’m a Federal contractor for a DoD branch. One common, if slightly awkward, email tactic around here is the BLUF (bottom line up front.)

      Dear General Samovar,
      BLUF: Your signature required on this purchase order for Tactical Tea Containment and Serving Vessels (TTCSVs)
      Our current teapots must be retired by the end of this fiscal year…
      [BODY TEXT]
      Very Respectfully,
      Lt. Urn Cauldron,
      72nd Hot Beverage Squadron

      Reply
    3. Red Stapler

      I was going to suggest that you could also mentioning looking into business communications seminars or classes at nearby colleges/universities. I took a course a few years ago and it really helped me lose a lot of the extra words I was using!

      Reply
    4. Jeff

      Lois McMaster Bujold once gave outstanding advice for report writing in one of her novels:

      Just remember the ABC’s
      Accuracy
      Brevity
      Clarity

      I find that this advice applies to many writing situations.

      Reply
    5. ZuKeeper

      In college, I majored in journalism and also took a business writing class. Everything was short and to the point because space and time is limited. Senior year, I took a history class. I got a D on my first term paper, with a note to see the prof. She informed me I didn’t know how to write. No, I don’t know how to write a flowery, long, drawn out history paper. Next paper about killed me, but it had long run-on sentences and tedious descriptions. A+.

      Give me straight and to the point any time.

      Reply
  3. K.

    I got dinged on my first assignment in business school because it was too long. (No word or page count was specified, in my defense.) Lesson learned the hard way – and it stuck!

    I tend to be pretty concise in my speaking, but because I do a lot of writing, I can sometimes be verbose. (I love words – I’m a voracious reader.) And I’ve done proposal writing and proposals are often long, so it can be tough to turn that off. I rely heavily on bullet points in my business emails. It really helps. I also make “are there too many words?” a part of my proofing proceeds, especially for stuff that’s designed to be short, like ads. Reading aloud helps too.

    Reply
    1. Not a Real Giraffe

      One of my most helpful classes in my grad program was taught by the ED of a major nonprofit. He would assign us reports that were to be no longer than 2 pages in length, as this was the maximum amount of time he felt someone in the working world would give to a report. If you went event one word over the 2-page limit, you failed the assignment. It really taught me how to trim out the fluff and get straight to the point, while still being able to convey the salient details.

      Reply
      1. Murphy

        That’s how most government writing is. Two page briefing notes. I can summarize and analyse a 150 page think tank report into two pages. It’s a very important skill and one I test for in interviews (one hour writing test no more than two pages… Go!)

        Reply
    2. Ann Furthermore

      Yep, happens to me too, for the same reason. I love to read, I’m a “word” person in general, and I type pretty quickly. Combine those 3 things, and it doesn’t take long for a whole stream-of-consciousness thing to start happening if I’m not careful.

      Reply
  4. KathyGeiss

    Re: 2 and 3. I like to have the action in the email subject line. So my subject lines usually look like this:
    FYI: topic here
    For Approval: topic here
    For Review: topic here
    For Your Files: topic here

    I find it helps give immediate information on what the “ask” is.

    Reply
    1. AdAgencyChick

      +10000000

      Many people let email pile up in their inbox, so if you have a required action in the subject line, that tells such people, “Don’t ignore this one!”

      Reply
      1. MaryMary

        I used to have a manager who receievd an enormous amount of email. We learned to put the required action in the subject line, or sometimes the entire message: “I have a flat tire but should be in by 10am.”

        Reply
        1. motherofdragons

          I can see how this is useful, but it immediately put my ears up around my shoulders because I have a manager who will do this but with 2-3 full sentences! That’s too much. Just put it in the body of the email, for Pete’s sake.

          Reply
          1. Red Stapler

            I think we must have the same manager! Does your manager also have “daily email tips” sent out to the entire organization, yet fails miserably at following the advice in the tip?

            Reply
        2. Not So NewReader

          Borrowing your example, I have used “Flat tire, will be in by 10. EOM)

          EOM being “end of message”, so they know they do not have to open the email. They can just read the subject and move on.

          Reply
      2. Chinook

        “so if you have a required action in the subject line, that tells such people, “Don’t ignore this one!””

        I use the same format as KathyGeiss and I see it more as flagging which emails will only take a moment to reply to and which will need to be opened when you have time.

        Reply
    2. K.

      I do this too! Make sure to be specific – “Please respond” isn’t useful because everyone who sends an email wants a response. “For review: Teapot presentation” is better. It really helps with my current boss, who tends to let email pile up.

      Reply
      1. KathyGeiss

        I loath “please respond” or worse, “please read” in all caps. I assume if it’s important enough to send me, you want me to read it.

        Reply
          1. fposte

            I kind of like that–it at least allows me to find the original message. When somebody comes up with a new subject umpteen months later, I’m completely screwed.

            Reply
            1. ZSD

              But the problem is when the new email is completely unrelated to the old one, and they’re just replying to that old email to avoid typing in your email address. If they send an email with the subject, “Re: Major taco project,” and in fact they’re talking about a completely different minor burrito project, it’s confusing.

              Reply
              1. Koko

                Yeah, this bugs me too. I like to be able to see what the email is about from the subject line.

                I had someone I work with as a freelancer who spent the first couple of months always eplying back to the email that I had attached my proposal to when we were first talking about working together. It always threw me to see an email called “Re: Proposal and sample materials” when what he wanted to talk about was coordinating a project for next week.

                It also makes it a lot harder to look for information that I can’t remember the specific wording enough to search for it. If I can remember what thread it was in, I just have to glance through the emails in that thread. But if there’s one mega-thread of every communication we’ve ever had I have to scan through the entire thing to find the information!

                Reply
            2. Mallory Janis Ian

              I hate it when people respond to my emails by creating a completely new email with a modified subject line instead of just replying to the original email. It makes me have to scrounge around for all the replies from various people instead of having them nicely threaded as one related conversation.

              Reply
              1. Elizabeth West

                I hate when they delete the original thread in their reply. I have to save stuff for a while and I end up saving like ten emails instead of one where I can just scroll down and find everything! That makes me want to rip out my hair and set it on fire!

                Reply
                1. NutellaNutterson

                  There’s one time where this isn’t true, imo, and that’s when it’s a large group discussion that doesn’t need more context than the immediate prior message. It’s not ideal to be using threaded email for that type of conversation, but getting everyone onto Slack is a pipedream.

        1. Lily in NYC

          Yeah, but there are lots of people who don’t read their emails and then complain later because they missed something important. I’ve written PLEASE READ before when it’s something urgent like “If you don’t turn your conflict-of-interest forms in by XX the consequences will be dire”. (obviously I don’t write that exact phrase). It’s the only thing that works with certain people and my boss actually makes me put the “PLEASE READ” in the subject line.

          Reply
      2. 05girl

        I disagree on “please respond” because some emails do NOT need a response. If I am sending out a report to my team, I don’t need everyone to respond that they read it. However, sometimes I need folks to provide their input or guidance on a task.

        Now Please Read — yes, all emails are expected to be read, so not needed!

        Even though SO many people don’t know how to even READ email… seriously.. a lot of people don’t seem to manage their inboxes sufficiently and consistently don’t read email – be it the mass emails from HR about your benefits or something a teammate sends!

        Reply
        1. Anonsie

          Now Please Read — yes, all emails are expected to be read, so not needed!

          Oh you’d be surprised how often this is needed… D:

          Reply
          1. Doriana Gray

            I admit that I have a bad habit of deleting emails without reading them if they don’t have a file number in the subject line (I assume it has nothing to do with anything I’m working on – I’m sometimes wrong about this).

            Reply
        2. TootsNYC

          Not all emails are intended to be read. Some are intended to be referred to later.

          And we often send emails w/ the full info in the subject line. So “pls read” is particularly useful for us.

          Or, the contents are formulaic and most people don’t really need to open it until they get the point that they need the info, if they ever do. and “pls read” is the cue that there’s something unusual here.

          Reply
        3. Lindsay J

          Ugh, my new coworker does this.

          He’s completely ignores half his emails. Then if I tell him to refer to the email (when he asks me about something he was already informed about) he will claim he didn’t get it. I know he got it. It’s maddening.

          Reply
          1. Karowen

            (I’m well after the fact, but) That’s when I respond with “Subject line was Teapots by Noon, I sent it at 9:33 am.” Make them go find it. Make them look silly.

            Reply
    3. Stranger than fiction

      This is great. Some of my coworkers here do an awkward version of this by putting their entire email/question in the subject line, which I don’t love. This is just enough to get their attention.

      Reply
    4. Hermione

      I like these! I also use:

      DUE TODAY: Topic Here
      RSVP by Monday: Topic Here,
      Feedback Needed: Topic Here,
      UPDATE: Topic Here
      SCHEDULE CHANGE: Topic Change

      Reply
      1. MaryMary

        I agree these are useful, but I *hate* getting messages that say “response needed by 5pm” in the subject line. I mean, it’s better than having the deadline buried in the email where I might miss it, but it generally means the rest of my day is screwed while I go do whatever is needed by 5:00. It’s just one of those things where you see the subject line and your stomach sinks.

        Reply
      2. motherofdragons

        I was just coming to chime in that including specific dates and/or times has been effective for me. I work in an office of notoriously slow email readers, and I have great success getting their response or approval with this kind of subject line. (Love your username, btw!)

        Reply
      3. 05girl

        I also use —

        ACTION NEEDED:
        FOR (NAME) REVIEW:
        INFORM:
        FOLLOW UP: (good for when folks don’t respond to something, clearly showing they didn’t read the email)
        NRN: (no reply needed, unfortunately people don’t know this one and I’ll still get a reply that simply says “thank you” smh)

        Reply
    5. Koko

      I use this especially when I’m contacting someone in another department. It’s about the only way people in other departments will ever open my emails.

      Reply
  5. CaliCali

    So as you alluded to, I think working in contracts can breed exactly the kind of behavior that you’re battling now (I work in a contracts-adjacent field). With a contract, you have to be comprehensive, fully explanatory, and not leaving any wiggle room for misinterpretation. So in some ways, your long-windedness (or, I’d venture to guess, your exhaustive explanation) is probably good in that capacity! The key is switching that with interpersonal correspondence, which needs almost the opposite skill set — only distilling to main takeaways, only describing what’s necessary for context, and sacrificing comprehensiveness (?) for the sake of expediency. As you can probably guess by the amount of text thus far, I’m pretty wordy as well — but in emails, I use a journalistic pyramid structure and go

    – What is the most important thing for the reader to take away, and starting with that
    – What is the action I’m requiring, and by when

    And that’s really it. If people have more questions, they can ask them. It’s OK to leave some things unanswered. I also will sometimes write out my whole wordy screed and then go back and do an edit to distill it to the main points. Good luck — I’ve learned that if this is the kind of critical feedback you’re getting, you’re probably doing pretty well overall!

    Reply
    1. Meg Murry

      Yes, I often write out my whole wordy mess just to get it all out, and then edit the crap out of it. (I do that with comments here sometimes too). Then bullet point the main stuff, and file or discard the wordy mess.

      With regards to contracts, OP, can you boil things down to “major risks” “mid-sized risks” and “so minor it would take a once in a thousand years event to have a problem risks”. Then present those risks as such. Or if you think the major risks are enough to be a concern, you don’t even need to bother with the mid-sized risks.

      If you really can’t break yourself of writing tons of words (or if you feel that you absolutely have to let the people signing the contracts know about all the risks) could you break it down like I mentioned above, and then put the whole thing into some kind of electronic files. That way you can say in the email “here are the 3 biggest risks I’ve identified, and the full risk analysis is in this folder on the electronic filing system [hyperlink]”. That way if you are faced with someone other than the VP, who actually DOES want more detail, it is available to them, but the VP get just the highest level information.

      Reply
      1. Anonsie

        This is what I do. I write everything down, then prune until the whole thing is ideally smaller than your comment here.

        Reply
    2. Stranger than fiction

      Yeah, she works for a sales VP, who’s probably going a mile a minute, so I’m not sure he entirely understands the very nature of her job is to be detailed. But I guess that’s beside the point. He wants her communications paired down so that’s what she needs to do.

      Reply
      1. LQ

        I’d guess that he does understand that her job is to be detailed. That’s likely why he has her in that position so she can deal with the contractual details and overly complicated legal language. But the communications with the VP don’t need to be detailed. That’s what she’s paid to do. He needs the high level basics. He trusts that she can do both based on need.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          I think this is a good summary. He doesn’t need the OP to tell him what she knows–he needs the OP to tell him what *he* needs to know.

          Reply
          1. MaggiePi

            This exactly.
            I have a coworker that is terrible about this. If you ask her anything, she will describe all the work she’s ever done of that file and every time she’s ever talked to that client before maybe eventually telling a story that includes or relates to the question. All I need is “Yes, they chose the blue teapot” or “They’ll pick a final color by Monday.”
            She does this to everyone. It drives me nuts. If I’m very impatient that day I will simply cut her off and say something like, “All I need to know is whether they they want a teapot that is red or blue.”

            Reply
            1. Gene

              Do you work with my wife? I know you don’t because she’s retired, but this is my life. :-) There are days when I want a sign that says, “Do you have a point? Please get to it.”

              Reply
            2. Kiki

              We must work at the same place. I have an unconcise coworker like that, but she will tell you everything three times. Three! Three times! I’m not sure why — I think the second time is so you really understand, and the third is just for emphasis. Emphasis! Emphasis!! lol

              Reply
        2. Not So NewReader

          Yep. In my job, I have to help reduce the huge amount of reading material my boss has, and NOT add to it. There are times when I can drill down through something and say, “Yep, it’s what we want. Please sign it.” She will sign it and read it later, taking it on my good word and good judgement.

          OP, you boss might want you to be doing something like this for him.

          Reply
    3. Green

      I’m going to partially disagree; while the work may breed that behavior, the people who are most skilled at contracting (and legal work) communicate briefly and clearly about complex topics. The long-winded stuff often leads to more opportunity for misinterpretation or conflict rather than less.

      Reply
  6. Lore

    Something that my boss said to me on a similar issue was really helpful. In order for me to formulate a request for information or ask for help with a problem or respond to someone else’s request for help with a problem, I kind of need to think through all the possible outcomes of the request so I can know exactly what I’m asking for.

    That work is super useful to me. It is not necessarily super useful in the email. As my boss said, “You don’t have to present the issue and resolve the issue in the same email. Let the people you’re addressing think about the information first.” So I tend to write everything down, then go back and take out the stuff that’s thinking three steps farther into the future. (In my defense, I would say 80 percent of the time, the scenario I cut out is exactly what happens next and the fact that I’ve already thought it through does come in handy later…but people aren’t always ready to get that second chunk of information upfront.)

    Reply
    1. Lore

      Or, I should say, that’s not what my boss actually said, but that’s what we realized the issue was when we talked about it, because I’d simultaneously gotten a “be more concise” from my direct boss and a general exhortation to my whole department from the uber-boss to “be more complete and give context in emails” and ended up really confused.

      Reply
  7. Master Bean Counter

    Two things I have learned to hep with this issue. One is to give headlines first and then see if they want details. Two is the KISS principle. KISS=Keep It Simple Shorty (or substitute what ever S word makes sense for you).

    Reply
    1. Amber T

      My 7th grade math teacher always said “Keep It Simple Stupid.” To the best of my knowledge he still teaches there.

      Reply
      1. darthita

        I have a malapropism-prone coworker who loves to drop that expression on conference calls, but every time he uses it, he says “Keep It Stupid, Simple” and I have to stifle my giggles.

        Reply
  8. The Other Dawn

    I wonder if these would work in the case of being kind of “scattered” in communications. I’ve always been wordy, and somewhat non-concise (is that a word?) when speaking. Either my mind is way ahead of my mouth, or I just don’t gather my thoughts fully before speaking, or I just assume everyone is in my mind and knows what I’m going to say so I don’t have to say it fully. I’ve found this has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older and sometimes avoid verbal communication because of it.

    Reply
    1. TL -

      Yeah, I verbally process too. If I have time to think about what I’m saying beforehand (like a presentation) I’m good and I’ve done enough public speaking to know that talking too much can confuse just as easily as not giving enough explanation.
      But if I’m trying to figure something out or work through a problem, I’m definitely a verbal processor.

      Reply
        1. nofelix

          Yeah ditto.

          Warning people first helps. The process of “let’s brainstorm this with everyone contributing and discussing” can be a great way of solving problems but it also requires a fair amount of energy from all concerned. So giving them a moment to get ready makes a big difference.

          Reply
      1. Tara R.

        I’m extroverted, and this definitely describes me– but it’s also kind of hurtful to have a feature of your personality described as “exhausting”, for what it’s worth. (As a comparison, I don’t refer to my introverted friends as being ‘demoralizing’, even if at the end of a bout of social interaction their visible tiredness gets me a bit down.)

        Reply
        1. nofelix

          These situations are kinda the same thing: they reduce your energy because they require input you’re not prepared to give. For the extrovert talking to the reticent introvert, it’s hard work to ‘fill in the gaps’ and keep the conversation going. For the introvert talking to the bubbling extrovert, it’s hard work to keep up with a conversation that can seem like it’s going nowhere. IMHO, it helps to see the benefits of both approaches and try to moderate the extremes in oneself.

          Reply
      2. Lindsay J

        I don’t think this is necessarily a feature of extroverted personalities. Nor do all introverts find extroverts exhausting; I don’t, so please don’t speak for me.

        Nor do I think it is productive to frame the different personality types as an “us” vs “them” thing.

        I certainly resent when extroverts act like or right out tell me that if I was more self-actualized I would be an extrovert and that being introverted is something to work through. And if I were an extrovert I would surely resent being told that I was exhausting or (not that you’ve done that here) that they are blathering idiots who are not as intellectual as introverts.

        Knowing the different personality types is good for identifying the type of self-care you need, or sometimes informing how to best interact with friends and coworkers. However, sometimes I think the popularity of the idea in recent years has done more harm than good.

        Reply
  9. Key to the West

    I’m quite similar, I can be so long winded when speaking and wordy I confuse others (and myself). I’m pretty good at concise written work/emails however.

    For meetings and conference calls where I know I’ll be asked for input on a matter or an update on my projects I write out the key points or issues before hand and just say them. Those who want to know more will ask.

    Reply
  10. KG

    I find some of my long-winded coworkers have a strong need to explain WHY they are asking for something, or all the steps that have led up to this request, but that context isn’t relevant to me and is a tiresome waste of my time. You need a list of the consultants that worked on X project – No problem, I don’t need to know anything more, so stop telling me, I’m busy. It can also feel condescending; assume that I’m smart enough to ask a follow up question should I need more info to do the request.

    I personally find long-windedness to be a sign that someone is insecure as it often feels like they are over-justifying (being defensive of their decisions) or giving too much context or backstory (unsure if they have arrived at the right conclusion).

    Reply
    1. justsomeone

      THIS. I do this. I’m actively trying to teach myself to Just. Shut. Up. But I go through the whole shebang when I talk to my boss because I feel like I need to prove that I know X or Y or that Z and P contributed to my decision. Part of it, I’m sure, is insecurity. This is my first “real” job, been here 3 years, trying to move up.

      Relatedly, this letter is perfect for my situation. Thanks, Alison!

      Reply
      1. TL -

        My roommate does that! She’ll justify decisions that I do not care about and it’s actually fairly amusing – she’ll start walking me through her reasonings and thought process and I’m just like, “I don’t care. Do what you want. I just asked so I could plan around it.”

        Reply
    2. Argh!

      I have a co-worker who does this. I will ask a question about something rather minor and receive a 3-paragraph elegantly written reply, complete with a 20-year history of how that something used to be. Since I depend on this co-worker for some of my workflow, it has made me stop asking questions or having unnessary conversations. I would rather have her work on her work and not on her excessive responses.

      Reply
    3. Noah

      Yes, this annoys me to no end. I will happily pull the data or have someone in my department pull it for me. I really don’t care why you want it 99% of the time. If I do care, I promise I will start asking questions to make sure proper approval has been obtained first.

      Reply
    4. Ama

      Yup, this was me. I think I’ve gotten better about leading with my question when I approach coworkers now, but when coworkers approach me, I have a hard time not overexplaining my answer. They don’t need to know all the limitations of our database, they just need to know if I can give them a list of all the teapot structural grants we’ve funded in San Francisco.

      Reply
    5. MaggiePi

      “I personally find long-windedness to be a sign that someone is insecure”

      Exactly. Let’s start from the assumption that you know how to do your job and I know how to do mine. I don’t need you to prove yourself to me, I just need to information I asked for, please.

      Reply
      1. MaggiePi

        P.S. I should clarify that this isn’t always the case and sometimes people are simply long-winded. I can certainly be so myself in certain scenarios, such as discussing ideas or theories.
        I was thinking more along the lines of my coworker, whose over-justification of basic answers seems to suggest high insecurity.

        Reply
        1. Argh!

          And sometimes they overestimate how interesting their stories are, or how undereducated you are. If I ask a simple question, I want an answer, not an education.

          Reply
    6. LBK

      I agree with this to an extent, but I also get plenty of 1-sentence emails where I either think “why the hell would I give that to you?” and/or “what is this person actually asking me for?” when I need more context, because the request itself is vague or could be answered a few ways. I think one sentence of background or explanation is fine and can help reduce back-and-forth.

      Reply
      1. Stranger than fiction

        Welcome to my world. Around here emails are so short, and nobody ever ever says when they need something by, so that’s always my first question.

        Reply
    7. MashaKasha

      My mom does this! She got a degree in teaching, and then worked in quality control all her life. Turns out, it’s a nuclear combination. She has to overexplain EVERYTHING. It drives me batty.

      Reply
    8. Anonsie

      I think there are two type of long-windedness, and I feel this because my partner is one and I’m the other. He’s the type you’ve mentioned and it’s extremely aggravating because I agree, it’s condescending. Like he doesn’t believe you’ll take it seriously unless he stresses simple information at you. He does this at work as well for sure, I’ve seen him bring a problem back to a coworker then “justify” doing so by telling them a bunch of junk they already know to really emphasize that it’s a big problem and he doesn’t trust them so he had to talk to them about it… Super glad I don’t work with him.

      For me I’m long winded (this comment betrays me) because I personally like to get all available information about a task. I do things in very specific ways depending on context and I like to do everything in one go without having to have a lot of back and forth with questions. I want to give others the opportunity to do whatever they find appropriate for the context as well, and I see it as giving all the tools up front so they don’t have to ask me questions.

      This is actually a good thing in my line of work much more often than not, because someone having to come back to me for questions is a much larger derailment in my business than in most others I suppose. But I’ll do this even when it’s not, and most people I work with are not so long winded either.

      Reply
    9. Not So NewReader

      I like this thread, OP.

      As you go along think of your reasons for being wordy. Usually there is more than one reason. And then think of a rebuttal to that reason.

      “Well I think the person might not understand.” Stop trying to anticipate everyone’s every thought. This can tire you right out if you persist.

      “I am so used to writing this way.” Learn to write to suit the need of the situation. Not only do people not have time to read all this stuff, you would also save yourself a chunk of time, too. You will get into the swing of writing shorter as people will predictably ask the same questions. So you will have a higher awareness of what people actually need to know.

      “Well, what if I miss something critical?” Re-read before you hit send. OR write down key words as a memory trigger for each talking point and check this list to make sure you cover the points before you hit send.

      Try to figure out why you include so much and see if the reasons make sense in real life. I know I will catch myself doing something that I had to do for a previous boss, but the current boss does not need/demand that particular type of assistance. Sometimes we carry habits from old jobs to new jobs and never check to see if the habit is necessary at the current place.

      Reply
    10. nofelix

      On Ask A Manager and other sites it is frequently said that people should provide the background to requests, especially when asking a peer. This is meant to make it sound less like an order, and allow them to better respond and prioritise.

      Maybe a balanced approach would be to lead with the request, then the next paragraph give a short summary of the background, then “please let me know if you’d like to know more” or whatever.

      Reply
  11. Amber T

    This is big for me too in my industry (similar). I’ve learned that it’s perfectly fine to answer an email with just “Yes/No” and to not be offended when I get a response like that.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      I always say, “If they answer then all is well. It does not matter how long or short.” It’s the ones that do not answer that worry me.

      Reply
  12. Shell

    Oh yeah, I remember learning this the hard way. Two jobs and many moons ago, I had sent an email to my supervisor, detailing an issue, what I had tried, and what I settled on, and he replied back with “did you try X?”. I was so annoyed because I had written “I tried X” in the body of the email! It wasn’t until a few years later I realized he probably skimmed over my miniature novel. :P

    Headings, bullet points, and ruthless editing has helped me out, though I’m not perfect. My comments here tend to skew long and verbose too, though I don’t edit my comments here like I do my business correspondence.

    I still slip up too. (This past week I sent a 4 paragraph letter to a customer service line of Big Service Company, which combined reporting an issue and a complaint. I’d normally just write in about the problem, but the lengthiness was because the local service agent had dumped me unceremoniously and majorly dropped the ball in the same go; I wanted to iterate why I was kicking it up to the parent company instead of going through the agent like standard procedure dictates.) But I’m getting better!…I think.

    Reply
    1. Snazzy Hat

      At Oldjob, there were too many e-mails wherein I asked my manager a question with the word “or” between options, and the reply was “yes”.

      Reply
      1. nofelix

        There seem to be a lot of people who do this. I try to account for it by making the options super clear with big titles and bullet points, or by not giving options at all. i.e. “I will follow up on Tuesday unless told otherwise”. The latter means that even if they don’t reply I still have a defensible course of action.

        Reply
        1. valc2323

          This was my passive-aggressive response to a former supervisor who would not make a decision and never followed up. Did not answer her phone or return phone calls. Did not answer email for weeks on end. (we were located in different cities.) I learned to lay it out with “the situation is thus-and-such. my options are A, B, C. If I do not hear back from you by Xpm on date, I will move ahead with option C.” And yes, a couple of times I got a query later on, “why did you proceed with option C?” and I could point back to “as discussed in the email chain of Xdate, since I didn’t hear back from you by established deadline, I followed what I thought was the best course of action.”

          It worked! She wasn’t always happy with my decisions, but couldn’t complain to her supervisor that I was failing to inform her of my actions, as I had clearly put it in writing in advance.

          Eventually the non-responsiveness got so bad that among other strategies, I started copying her boss on every message (at the boss’s request). She was eventually terminated.

          Reply
  13. ashleyh

    I tend to be long-winded but I know everyone I deal with is super busy so I focus on brevity. I communicate mostly in email, so when I write one, I’ll sit on it for a second, think about my message, and then go back and cut out anything unnecessary. If I’m fairly certain details will be needed but I want the main point to come across, I’ll do something like “I need your opinion on XYZ. Details are below” with a couple bullet points so it’s not “this happened and then this but I considered this so what do I do now?”

    Reply
    1. ashleyh

      Also, I used to have to write a lot of documents to high-school aged employees, where I would need to spell out EVERY SINGLE DETAIL (when I say “come dress in your uniform” I mean X, Y, Z, A, B, C), so it was really reframing my mindset that now I work with professionals who I can depend on (for the most part ;))

      Reply
  14. Snarkus Aurelius

    There’s someone who regularly makes me want to tear my hair out over this type of behavior so here’s what I wish he knew.

    When answering a question, before you start typing or speaking, you’ve got to keep in mind what the original question was.  Especially if the question is from a busy boss, answer his question FIRST.  Do not give any less or more than what he wants to know.  Then stop and let him ask whatever follow ups he wants.  If you have a strong opinion on something or there’s a major detail he doesn’t know to ask about, still answer his question and THEN provide extra information in the shortest possible way.  Do not go further than that.

    If you have to be proactive about something, keep it to the top 3-5 important details.  I get about 100 emails a day, and when I see a single spaced email that takes up a majority of my large monitor, I don’t even start reading it.  I don’t have time.  If you’re asking someone for something, make sure that ask is in a separate paragraph that’s easy to see when the email opens.

    The guy I mentioned in my first paragraph is a bit of a running joke but the reality is no one wants to talk to him to the point he has missed out on a lot of career opportunities.  He’s a nice guy, but when I ask about the status of X, I don’t need to hear the history of X starting in the 1940s.  The first time I met him, it took him (no joke) 3.5 hours to tell me his job and department functions and even then he didn’t get to all of it.

    So please PLEASE heed this warning and do your best to address it.  You’ll be better off in the long run.

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      I work with one of those, historical details and all. And I have another coworker who can’t summarize but at least sticks to the topic. I have also responded to this behavior like you & your coworkers have. Both of them initiate conversation often enough that they probably haven’t noticed I don’t speak first, or if I do I stay far far away from rabbit-hole topics.

      Reply
    2. nofelix

      “The first time I met him, it took him (no joke) 3.5 hours to tell me his job”

      Haha, oh wow. That’s truly something special. I wonder if he thought it was so nice to have all that time to talk about his work.

      Reply
  15. Kate M

    I’m sure when actually writing contracts there is specific and wordy language you have to use. But one thing I find for a lot of people just coming out of college, is that they equate “longer” and “higher level words” with “better.” (College definitely does a lot of students no favors with this – we don’t usually want 20 page papers in the business world.) For instance, I’ll get interns and newer staff members write something like: “In order to fully utilize the software to its fullest potential, we need to do X because of the fact that Y.” The sentence should be something like, “With [software], we need to do X because Y.” If you can cut out words, do so. Don’t use a five dollar word when a dollar word will work.

    Second, in things like meetings, it drives me crazy when people dominate the conversation as well. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it (like when it’s the big boss), but you should ask yourself, “where do I fall on the heirarchy?” If you are one of the top people in the meeting, then you should be speaking 80% of the time. If you’re lower on the heirarchy, limit yourself to 5% or less (i.e. only speak up when someone genuinely needs to know what you have to say). (Note – I wouldn’t suggest this for everyone, because some people really do need to speak up more, but in this situation where OP needs to tone down talking, I’d suggest thinking of it this way.) If you want to chat, wait until the meeting is over and chat with whoever lingers (but be aware of social cues – if they’re edging towards the door, answering in one word answers, etc, drop the conversation).

    Reply
    1. nofelix

      TBH, I feel that the task at hand should determine who is speaking most, and hierarchy only so much as it relates to that task. An agenda is very good at demonstrating this (and I really hate when people diverge from the agenda!).

      Often an employee will briefly give the status of something and their boss will then waffle at length with some brainfarts before moving on, then repeat with the next item. If the purpose of the meeting is not to get the boss’s opinion on everything, this is essentially tripling the time spent for no reason, and his seniority doesn’t change that. Of course, there are some meetings where recording the boss’s thoughts are the purpose, but not as many as some bosses seem to think!

      Reply
      1. Kate M

        I guess by hierarchy I meant who is most involved/most in charge of the project or meeting. If it’s high level stuff, then obviously the bosses are going to be the ones talking most, and anyone lower on the pole shouldn’t interject too much (i.e. if you’re there mainly to hear the plan and know the details to put it in action). If you’re calling a meeting to speak with your boss about something, then obviously you should talk more. Most of the meetings I have tend to be all staff meetings, which can get long. I was mainly thinking about times in the past when I’ve had interns continually speak up in these meetings that were distracting or something, since they were new and didn’t really know how things were supposed to go.

        Reply
  16. Collie

    I’m a chronic-oversharer who is not only wordy, but also bogs people down with details they don’t need or care about (either work-related or personal…it’s a real problem; I also use “also” too much ;) and I use too many parentheticals, IMO. And here I am, perpetrating the exact thing I’m talking about. Bless my heart.). I also tend to restate things either with the same or differing terminology. Some of these tips will help with that, I think, so thanks, LW and Alison!

    Reply
    1. Colorado CrazyCatLady

      I work with someone who sends emails with one statement or request but says it at least 3 times, with different terminology and a lot of “i.e.” or “in other words”. It’s really hard to read and often makes me more confused.

      Start off with the assumption that :
      a) I will understand your first attempt at explaining it and
      b) if you think I won’t, rethink how you phrase it to begin with, rather than writing every possible way to say what you want to say.

      Reply
      1. TL -

        Oh yeah I tend to write something three different ways but then I go back and pick the best one (usually the shortest) and delete the other two.

        Reply
        1. Colorado CrazyCatLady

          I do the same thing. My initial emails aren’t perfect but I read them before sending with the goal of getting the information I need. So that means I look for areas I can simplify, look for things that can be bullet points, clear up the subject line and only include people on CC who should be on cc.

          In my experience with wordy people, they also CC way too many people which causes just as much confusion!

          Reply
          1. TL -

            Oh, I almost never cc anyone unless absolutely necessary. I’m not a fan of being cc’ed and I want people to read my emails because I only send them emails that are relevant.

            Reply
    2. nofelix

      “I also tend to restate things either with the same or differing terminology”

      Haha I also do that all the time. I feel that otherwise things tend to lack impact. My natural way of typing is to say “The X is a concern because of Y and Z. [description of Y], [description of Z]. Therefore Y and Z are a concern for X”.

      It’s tricky because there’s a 50/50 split between people who hate the extra verbiage and those who look at you cluelessly if you don’t include it. I am trying to get better at pleasing both camps though.

      Reply
  17. LQ

    Think about making your work more scanable rather than shorter and it might help for you. Most people scan quickly over things looking for the information they need:
    * Bullets
    * Shorter words
    * Headings
    * Shorter sentences

    Eric’s suggestion of a “Let me know if you need more details” can be really helpful too. (Though that’s kind of more for you, I’d bet everyone, especially at the top levels, knows they can ask for more if they want it.)

    Reply
  18. Mando Diao

    Ooooh, this is a good one. I’ve had to train myself out of longwindedness and over-explaining. It comes from having a mom who defaulted to “interrogation mode.” I could say, “I went to the movies with Jenna yesterday,” and instead of asking me about the movie, she’d jump in with, “Who’s Jenna? Where did you meet her? Did she go to college? Which theater? Did you go to dinner first? Was this after work?” Basically a bunch of place-setting details that detail-oriented people appreciate but that most people don’t find necessary in order to get the gist of a story about seeing a movie. So I got into the habit of providing a bunch of extraneous backstory in order to avoid interruptions and to maintain some control over he direction of what I was saying. This isn’t a ding against my mom (there are worse qualities than showing active interest in your kid’s stupid stories), but it has helped me to realize that most people don’t have this particular conversational quirk. OP, you might find it useful to figure out why you always include extra details and what you fear will happen if not everything gets communicated in the original message. Trust me, if people are confused or need more info, they’ll ask for it.

    Reply
    1. Beezus

      Yep, I have a different backstory reason, but my issues center around trying to anticipate and answer all possible questions in one giant communication, instead of just providing a brief amount of needed information.

      Reply
      1. KVB

        My husband does this! He starts apologizing for delivering bad news and proposing other solutions before he even delivers the bad news! It drives me totally nuts, but his mom is exactly the same as yours, Mando Diao. This is a total revelation for me (though I still wish he would self-censor from time to time).

        Reply
        1. Mando Diao

          Yep, I still often catch myself getting into meticulous detail instead of answering the question at hand, and I think that’s the actual issue here. You need to train yourself to filter out what information people are looking for even if the question isn’t quite going in the right direction. Like in my story about the movie…if I were telling my mom the story, she would want all of those extra details, but if I told the story that way to anyone else, they’d be frustrated that I never got around to telling them what the movie was about. You have to remember that when most people ask you about your night at the movies, they want to know about the movie, not about where Jenna’s husband interned during college.

          Reply
      2. Mando Diao

        That’s the motivation behind it – you’re used to being interrupted so you get used to filling in the blanks as you go along, or else other people will distract you with questions and never get to the “punchline” of your story. It’s annoying because it’s a habit you develop as a reaction to other people, and then you have to un-learn it in order to have normal casual social conversations.

        I think it’s somewhat common in academia as well – that’s an environment that allows you to throw ideas around and to chew over and explain ideas that you maybe don’t agree with but are just thinking about, and that’s a mode of thinking that reallllllly doesn’t work in, say, political conversations. Lots of people don’t understand that a long-winded explanation of why SOME people support Trump isn’t the same thing as you personally endorsing Trump.

        This is a tangent for sure, but I think it might benefit people who are trying to figure out clearer ways of communicating.

        Reply
  19. Catalin

    Behold the beauty of the BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. These are EXCELLENT at high-level presentations and it sounds like this is what your boss wants. It’s what most of us want: get to the point! If we need or want more information, we/they can ask. If you’re supposed to answer a complex query, break it down into its components.

    Reply
      1. Catalin

        Hi MaryMary! Any acronym that gets people to stop robbing seconds (minutes…hours…days…) is worth publishing.

        Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      I frame it as, start with your punchline. It’s very similar to writing my last paragraph at the start of the email. Maybe think of it as writing your last paragraph (or few sentences) first?

      Reply
  20. MaryMary

    OldJob used the acronym BLOT: Bottom Line On Top to encourage people to get to the point at the beginning of their emails. It was widely used at the company, sometimes you’d even see people literally start an email with BLOT. Like, “BLOT: Team A will not meet our Friday deadline, but we are confident we can deliver the chocolate teapots by the end of the day on Monday.” Then the rest of the email would go on to detail how exactly team A was going to get their act together to get those teapots out by Monday. If you want to read the detail, it was there. If you only cared about knowing when the teapots would be ready, you could read the first sentence and go one with the rest of your work. People would use it verbally too, if you launched into a long winded explanation, your manager might say, “Hang on, can you BLOT it for me?”

    Reply
    1. Ama

      I didn’t know this was a formal concept — I’ve been noticing my tendency to write into my topic sentence for a few years now and just move the sentence to the front while editing. I just thought my brain worked in circles (well, it does, but possibly not in this instance).

      Reply
  21. Kyrielle

    Also, on emails where you *do* need to include the details, put the summary in too. (Or ‘request’ and ‘reasons’ sometimes are other headings.)

    Summary:
    Short with bullet points.

    Details:
    blah blah blah blah…. :)

    Reply
    1. t

      This is what I do. Often I write the details first to work through everything in my head, then I write the summary. With some people, I will then save that off and send them a version without the details. :)

      Reply
  22. TotesMaGoats

    I’ve found that the times where I was more long winded it’s because I felt like my decision about X would be questioned by the boss and wanted to explain why up front to not be questioned. Then all management did a DISC analysis and my boss was someone who preferred bullets and brevity and so I switched to that style. Made my life a million times better.

    Reply
  23. Artemesia

    This is just so vital and there are lots of great suggestions so far. I think if someone can not lay out a complicated idea in a page, they don’t understand it. I used to supervise dissertations and I would not have a conversation with a student about their dissertation proposal until they had produced a one page statement that indicated:
    1. the question they were addressing
    2. how they would organize the research
    3. why anyone would care about it

    If you can’t do that, you aren’t at a point to get advice.

    I had never heard ‘BLOT’ but it is critical. The first paragraph or sentence needs to deliver the main idea — and everything else supports it.

    If you have lots of trouble being concise, then get in the habit of editing you own work with the goal of cutting words in half. Flabby writing drives people nuts.

    Reply
    1. Shell

      I read The Elements of Style years ago and literally don’t remember any of the things mentioned in the book except for the rule “omit needless words”. The book differentiates between concise and long: a piece of writing can be long but concise if it covers a lot of ground and doesn’t have any fluff.

      It’s a hard rule to implement. I try to slash a third of my word count when I edit.

      Reply
      1. Elizabeth West

        I have “Omit needless words” posted in my cube, LOL.

        Right above that, I have this posted:

        –Who is going to be reading this?

        –What information are they interested in getting from it?

        –What do they already know?

        I forget which text I stole that one from.

        Reply
  24. shep

    I deal with questions of state regulations daily. I fall prey a lot to wordiness (but also use bullets, etc. to organize everything) because often questions can have multiple answers depending on the inquirer’s situation.

    But I’ve gotten WAY better at saying something like, “Usually, my answer would be X, but there are exceptions. Please be in touch if Y or Z and I can give you more information.”

    Reply
  25. KVB

    This is GREAT advice. I am definitely one for brevity in work e-mail.

    I will just add: come at communication from a baseline that assumes your boss trusts you to do your job. If a week of research or troubleshooting led you to an answer you are presenting, your boss does not really need to know about all the dead ends you hit, all the things that didn’t work, or all the things you thought might be options but wound up not being as good as the solution you ultimately settled on. If there are a few options, talk through them briefly, and let your boss ask if additional detail is needed. Your boss does not need a play-by-play of how you spend your time if you are getting things done and turning over high quality work.

    Reply
    1. Lynn Whitehat

      YES! I had to learn this lesson when I left school and started working. People don’t need to see all your rough drafts, homework, and explanations like they did in school.

      Reply
      1. KTB

        THIS!!! Every once in a blue moon, I will ask an employee to show their work on something, but 95% of the time, I just want the answer. That 5% of the time is when the answer isn’t what I thought it should be.

        Reply
  26. InsideTheBox

    I’ve found it useful to strive for 3 sentence emails or less. When it has to be longer, I call someone instead.

    Reply
      1. Brooke

        I often loathe talking on the phone but I’ve found that sometimes hearing that person’s voice is critical. Especially if I trust them. If I don’t trust them, oh yes, email. Even if we talk on the phone I’ll follow up with a “Just to recap…. let me know if this is all correct…” email.

        Reply
  27. Allison

    In a similar vein, is there any way to encourage my coworkers to be more concise and get to the point? So many of my meetings with one guy specifically turn out to be him rambling for 30 minutes, and if I’m able to get a word in to ask a question he often answers with more rambling and only gives me a useful answer if I ask the question a second time, using “what I need to know is ____” to emphasize that I’m actually asking for specific information. I’ve tried to rein him in a little and explain to him what information is actually useful to me when we touch base, in hopes that he’ll get to the point and focus on that as opposed to going on and on and ON, and he took it to heart for maybe a month and then totally forgot we had that conversation.

    Reply
    1. Mando Diao

      I sometimes say, “Wait, so what’s the punchline here?” When you say, “Get to the point,” that doesn’t help because they think they’re getting there.” The word “punchline” implies something quick and concise.

      Reply
  28. Kiwilib

    Perfect timing -reading this on way into work and presenting to a management meeting later. I suffer from being wordy and wanting to give too much information. Shall pin to my wall.

    Reply
  29. Mmmmk

    I have the opposite problem. My boss is SUPER long winded (speaks fast and for long periods of time) to the point it’s basically stream of consciousness. It’s not only frustrating, but actually leads to him saying things to prospective clients that seem very inadvisable (like making small talk about how our public institution has leaks in the roof…not something we’d like to draw attention to). I wish I could give him this feedback as well as taking it myself!

    Reply
    1. SophieChotek

      Me too. (I just commented about it below.) My boss is also super-long winded. We have 2 hour conversations that I can usually sum up in 2 sentences. But he wants to illustrate every point with a 15 minute anecdote (that I’ve usually heard before) and half the time his advice is just general fluff — like “We just need to all work harder on this” — nothing concrete that can actually help me concretely achieve my goals.

      Reply
    2. the_scientist

      A former boss used to send 5-10 paragraph stream-of-consciousness emails. Most of her thoughts/questions in those emails were not things I would have had the authority to make decisions about; I needed her to make the final call.

      It was a nightmare.

      Reply
    3. MaryMary

      Giving the feedback is one thing, getting him to follow it is another. We have an account executive who will BS and tell stories about his glory days for hours. A little small talk helps everyone settle in and feel comfortable, a few minutes about the weather or how about them sports is fine. Better yet if you spend small talk time talking about the client’s kid/dog/boat. But when you extend a meeting by half an hour or more telling stories about yourself, that’s not good. He’s been given feedback multiple times by multiple people. Clients have asked not to work with him, and we’ve even lost an account or two over it. I don’t think he fully realizes he does it or can stop himself, but he also don’t notice when clients roll their eyes or when his coworkers kick him under the table.

      Reply
  30. Megs

    Maybe the best advice I got in college was to keep communications to a single topic whenever possible. I had a bad habit of raising my hand in class and responding to a bunch of things at once, which tended to derail conversations. The prof’s point, which I’ve found extends well to the working world, is that people will get overwhelmed if you’re trying to communicate too many things at once so will just ignore everything except maybe the first thing that jumps out at them. If you’ve got a whole checklist of things to deal with, it’s usually better to set up a meeting with an agenda, even if it’s informal (“Jane, do you have five minutes to run through today’s action items?”)

    Reply
  31. Mimmy

    Alison – This is very helpful! I think I tend to get long-winded too, particularly in emails, but even verbally, it just comes out like a rambling nonsense. Hopefully I can try some of these techniques.

    I also wanted to comment: Depending on the topic, I find long-windedness can also an outgrowth of passion about the topic. I was in a meeting yesterday and one of the county Freeholders presented on a new initiative; at one point, he admitted that he could “go another 20 minutes” because he feels deeply about this initiative.

    Reply
  32. SophieChotek

    I wish I had that problem. One of my supervisors got upset that my weekly reports were not long enough–I was trying to concise and brief – bullet points (here is what I worked on, trying to accomplish Y)–she said they were too short. So now to keep her happy I have to churn out 4-5 pages a week on what I did that week….which actually takes time away from doing anything else, along with weekly statistical reports and measurement of customer interactions, etc.. I often find myself going over what I did in excruciating detail. But apparently that is what that supervisor wants. My other supervisor was fine with brevity, but the supervisor that wanted lengthy reports has influence.

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      Same here. I find myself padding my reports with extra clauses and stats about nothing that she’ll care about just to make her happy. The irony is that she conveys almost no information to her reports at all and hardly ever has meetings with us. Then when she does send out an e-mail it’s too long for my taste. I’d rather get two short e-mails on two different topics.

      Reply
      1. SophieChotek

        Yep, sounds like we’re in the same boat. Adding any thing and everything (extra clauses and stats or analyzing the stats to death) to make the report longer. If I can’t hit at least 3.5 pages, often I’ll go do something for a few minutes (I refuse to lie and say I did something I did not), but then I’ll spend longer writing about what I did…

        Although this supervisor sends equally long emails/reports/requests to me. To be fair, her comments and concerns are usually pretty helpful (or have some substance) but I also dread reading her emails because they are so long with millions (so it feels) of new tasks that get added as she writes.

        Reply
    2. Drink the Juice Shelby

      In my previous job at the company I work for, I wrote our weekly program reports that went to our VP and higher. It was pretty much max of 5 paragraphs with 5 sentences being a “long” paragraph – 3 sentences was best. You learn to pack the most information in a concise style. I’m in a different role now, but my weekly status to my manager is still very concise. It’s only longer if I’m having an issue that I want to escalate up.

      Reply
      1. Carpe Librarium

        Thanks for reminding me of this moment in season one of Angel:

        Angel: Oz.
        Oz: Angel.
        Angel: Nice surprise.
        Oz: Thanks.
        Angel: Staying long?
        Oz: Few days.
        [long pause]
        Doyle: [to Cordelia] They always like this?
        Oz: No, we’re usually laconic.

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          “Mr. Coolidge, I have a little bet with someone that I can get you to say three words.”

          “You lose.”

          Reply
  33. F Manley

    This is one of those quite rare occasions when I will sincerely recommend Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. (I will anti-recommend it to people wanting to learn how to write engaging but non-hack-like fiction.) It’s a good little manual, with some worked examples, for how to be concise in a way that suits business communication. The suggestions above will do you more good overall when it comes to what to put in writing, but Strunk & White are good for shaving off words-per-sentence once you’ve settled on content.

    Reply
  34. CM

    When I need to supply a lot of details, often I’ll start off with a summary paragraph, like this:

    Summary: We need to make a decision on X. My proposal is Y. If you disagree or have any thoughts, please let me know by the end of the day Friday. If I don’t hear from you by 4 p.m. Friday, I will send out an email saying Y. Full details are below.

    Details:
    [Everything you ever wanted to know about X]

    Reply
  35. Bluesboy

    Oh, this is my problem too. And now I feel under insane pressure to keep this response short.

    My issue is to remember who I’m writing to. I have clients where I need to write in ‘flowery’ language, that is typically longer. I have contractual emails where elements need to be specified in precise detail. I also have quick requests and confirmations to colleagues or superiors.

    My tendency is to write to everyone as if I were writing to a high-level client that I’m worried about offending. That leads to detail, long sentences, and an absolutely unnecessary level of attention paid to precision of working in probably 80% of cases. While I take pride in ‘nice’ mails, I’ve had to learn to leave that pride aside with colleagues and my boss.

    I have like 20 more things to say, but if I do, I’ll just prove I’m worse than you, and then why would you listen to me?

    Done.

    Reply
    1. Bluesboy

      Not done. Sorry. Example. Can’t help it.

      Today I was in copy on an email that said “Ben will send you the dates.”

      I could have just answered “Which dates?” And then send them.

      Instead “Sorry, could you clarify that? I’m assuming you mean the appointment dates, but I think the client already has those as per your last mail. I’m not sure which dates you’d like me to send, if you could let me know, I’ll get right on it.”

      He answered “The appointment dates. Just to be safe.”

      7 words.

      Done now. Really.

      Reply
      1. Observer

        LOL!

        I probably would have written something longer than “Which dates”, but shorter than yours. More like “Could you clarify? I assume it’s the appointment dates, but I think the client already has those.”

        Reply
  36. Lillian McGee

    I love this! I usually end up spending a very long time writing emails because I am trying to be brief. I always think of Blaise Pascal… “I would have written a shorter email, but I did not have the time…”

    Reply
  37. Noah

    You do not want to be known as the long-winded one who will not shut up.

    We have one person at my company that makes people roll their eyes when he calls. You know it will be a 30 minute long conversation, even on the simplest of topics. Same thing on email. His emails are pages and pages long. Most people either zone out on the phone or don’t bother to read his emails.

    Reply
  38. Tau

    I have massive problems with this. Massive. Anytime I try to edit what I’ve written to make it shorter, it ends up even longer. I try to add a one-line summary at the top and it turns into two paragraphs. I think it’s some unholy hybrid of Asperger’s + maths PhD (which means I am used to justifying-at-length EVERY silly nearly irrelevant technical detail), but that doesn’t really help… no one’s complained yet, but I have the terrible suspicion it’s only a matter of time. And besides, even if super-detailed mode is appropriate sometimes, I’d like to be able to write in another mode as well. Definitely taking some of these suggestions on board!

    Reply
  39. HR Caligula

    I could go on and on about how great that advice but keeping in theme I’ll limit it just a single word.
    Awesome!

    Reply
  40. IT_Guy

    I’ve been dinged in the past for the exact opposite! Now all my emails have two parts. The first part is limited to one or two brief sentences, like “I’m sorry but your request has been denied as you don’t have appropriate security level”, or “Your backup has been completed” then I follow up one or two paragraphs on more detail and possible options or work arounds as well as other people to contact.

    This gives them an executive level summary and if they want more verbiage, they can wade through the rest of the email. This has been very effective for both them and me as it’s forced me to think things through.

    Reply
  41. kac

    You know that bit of advice: before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one accessory off? I think that applies here, too!

    My long-winded colleagues tend to think I need more information than I really do, as a result, I have a hard time digesting what the essential take-aways are and what is just background info. It all winds up feeling muddled for me!

    So: When you put together a presentation or write an email, take a moment to “look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” You didn’t need that bangle bracelet/bit of backgound info anyway. And now I can appreciate your earring/the so-what of your presentation much more!

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      Sometimes I have to wake myself up when they take a breath and say “So the answer is no?” or “So the answer is yes?” or “In conclusion….?”

      Reply
  42. LBK

    Hoo boy. I am absolutely a rambler (as other frequent commenters may have noticed!). I think a good rule of thumb is to just stick to the just giving the main point of whatever you’re trying to say and assuming that if people want details or background, they’ll ask for it. Start there, then take note of who the people are that always ask for further details and you can start providing more info to them proactively.

    In my old job, I mostly dealt with auditors, lawyers and administrators who were “want all the details” people. In my new job (can I still call it that if I’ve been here for a year?) I mostly deal with sales executives who do not care about the details at all, they just want to know the number and who it affects. It’s been a big adjustment, but the technique above has worked really well for me.

    Reply
    1. Mike C.

      Oh man, the first thing I was taught about dealing with auditors was to answer only what they specifically asked and sit there silently until they asked another question.

      Question: “Do you know what time it is?”

      Wrong Answer: “Yes, it’s 12:34pm.”
      Correct Answer: “Yes.”

      And yeah, I’ve known the curse of rambling since I could first speak.

      Reply
      1. Shell

        Your comment made me wonder whether support positions (or prior experience in a support position) contributes to this tendency of over-explaining.

        Back in my admin days, one of the most important attributes was anticipation. It doesn’t help higher-ups to be assigning me work piecemeal (“do X. Then do Y. Then do Z” when XYZ were all sequential parts of the same pipeline), so I was trained to anticipate needs, questions, ad nauseum and that probably reflected in my writing (I answer one question/report one status, and preemptively answer/report the followup questions I know they must be thinking about).

        Though that’s not necessarily a correlation, because my admin days were also when I was younger and not as aware of professional norms. But it’s a possible cause.

        Reply
        1. Colorado CrazyCatLady

          Anticipating needs is different though and part of knowing your audience. I don’t mind if someone provides more relevant information. It’s when they give back stories and excessive detail that I don’t want or need that makes it tough to sort through. Otherwise, I have no idea what the takeaway message is.

          Reply
        2. Anonsie

          This is where this comes from for me, too. I do regulatory work in which anticipating what questions those agencies will ask and making sure that information is included up front is a major key to getting things done quickly and as close to what you’ve actually asked for as possible.

          Reply
          1. LBK

            Yes, this is what I was trying to get at – I’m accustomed to knowing the lengthy list of questions that will be asked, so it saves time to just provide all the detail up front rather than wasting hours of back and forth. Sorry I apparently provided such a bad red herring by calling them auditors.

            Reply
      2. Noah

        Yes! I’ve always been taught to never provide any extra information to an auditor or regulatory agency. Answer the question they’ve asked or provide the information they requested and nothing more. If they want 30 days worth of data, do not provide this month and last month because it is easier. Run a new report with the required dates instead. No reason to give them anything extra to find fault with.

        Reply
      3. LBK

        They weren’t actually auditors but that’s the closest shorthand I have for their role (unless you’re really familiar with how unbundled 401(k) plans operate). Maybe compliance officer is more accurate? Basically people who needed a lot of detail in order to be able to interpret and verify information.

        Reply
        1. Observer

          Even with compliance officers (from what you describe, it sounds a lot like program officers and monitors in the non-profit sector), when they are doing a compliance audit, you don’t give them more information than they asked for. You give as much detail as they need, no more and no less, about the specific thing they asked, and about nothing else.

          Reply
          1. LBK

            They weren’t doing audits. I appreciate that you guys are trying to clarify how you should interact with auditors, but I did this job for 3 years – suffice to say I understood my relationship to them and the kind of information they wanted much better than I can explain here without having to give a lengthy description of the whole process that will only further distract from the point I was trying to make.

            Reply
  43. Anon for this

    I wish my boss would read this. She is insistent that we provide all background information and make our emails as organized and detailed as possible. It drives me absolutely batty. I appreciate that she wants to be thorough, but at the same time, I think she goes overboard especially in communications to external clients and vendors.

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      My boss is this way too, and I’m the opposite. If I don’t have every detail laid out she makes a point of shooting holes in my proposal (she probably thinks she’s helping, though)

      Reply
  44. Mike C.

    The best advice I’ve been given is to think, “what is the question being asked of me” and then answer it. If they need more detail, they know how to get a hold of you. Include only what they ask for, and if there are any serious caveats they should be aware of.

    If it’s not clear what exactly they need (which can lead to you covering more bases than you need), ask them what they specifically need and leave it at that.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      This. It’s not rude to answer the exact question, even if the answer feels too brief. What is annoying is loading a person up with info that does not answer the exact question.

      Reply
  45. Sualah

    I am so used to using TL;DR that I actually put that in an email at work once! Did all my details and then TL;DR at the bottom.

    I do agree that if her boss wants her to be concise, she needs to be concise, but I find that sales people sometimes tend to underestimate the details they need, or need to provide to get an accurate answer. Maybe it’s just my industry. But it seems they like to phrase the question to get the answer they want and then when all the details are found out, they can get mad at us for misleading them and not providing the complete answer. We are very wary of just giving the quick answer to our sales department.

    Sort of like, “I have a customer who wants to place an order for our Dark Chocolate Teapot, I’ll just have them fill out the order form, right? And our turn time is 2 weeks?”

    “Yes, for a standard order.”

    [Customer wants a special order fancy complete teapot set made from melted exotic truffles that has been out of production for 5 years]

    “Well, why wouldn’t you tell me that we need to get extra measurements and set the expectation that our turn time will be six weeks for this? And look at all this extra expense!”

    Yeah, I’m the bad guy here.

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      –Sort of like, “I have a customer who wants to place an order for our Dark Chocolate Teapot, I’ll just have them fill out the order form, right? And our turn time is 2 weeks?”

      “Yes, for a standard order.”–
      The correct answer to this is “That’s not what I asked…. and then get to the true point (which you could have said the first time): “Special orders have a 2-week turn-around, right?”

      Reply
      1. Sualah

        I don’t think I was clear in who was speaking when.

        Sales: “I have a customer who wants to place an order for our Dark Chocolate Teapot, I’ll just have them fill out the order form, right? And our turn time is 2 weeks?”

        Me, in production: “Yes, for a standard order.”

        [Customer wants a special order fancy complete teapot set made from melted exotic truffles that has been out of production for 5 years. We update the order based on the form.]

        Sales, after we advise of the new revised turn time and cost, which we would have done up front if they had given us the information and hadn’t made it seem like a regular order: “Well, why wouldn’t you tell me that we need to get extra measurements and set the expectation that our turn time will be six weeks for this? And look at all this extra expense!”

        Me in my head: Because we are not mind readers and you refuse to give details if it means you won’t get the answer you want. In my industry, they don’t seem to get the idea of under promising and over delivering. Just tell the customer good news up front, always.

        Reply
        1. Ebonarc

          Your description of the sales person’s mindset really struck a chord with me. I work with sales in my role and I see the exact same dynamic in how they communicate–phrase things to get the answer you want, and avoid giving details that’ll let those pesky back office people (*raises hand*) give you bad news.

          Reply
  46. weasel007

    Awesome question. I struggle with this also. I’m an emotional writer. I try to write, save and then come back 5 minutes later with fresh eyes and find I can still be more concise.

    Reply
  47. Ultraviolet

    I’ve often found that if you focus on precision as a goal, conciseness will follow. Before writing or speaking, try to figure out exactly which pieces of information you’re trying to pass on and what you expect the receiver to do with it. That will help you identify and eliminate extraneous points.

    Reply
  48. Scott M

    I love “save background, context, and details for when/if they’re specifically requested.” I call this my “Don’t answer questions that haven’t been asked” rule.

    I don’t always follow that rule perfectly. But I try.

    Reply
  49. Dee

    As the reader who posted this question, I just want to say a huge thanks to Alison for her feedback and to all of the readers who have posted comments – – – there is really some great information here. While I have worked for this person for several years, this was the first time I received the “concise” feedback from him, but unfortunately, not the first time I have heard it. Since I don’t want to be the person who is passed over for jobs or the person everyone hates and/or avoids at work or otherwise, I realize the ideas you guys have shared arent’t just something I do for now to appease my boss, but something I need to integrate into my overall being. I sincerely thank you all again!

    Reply
  50. Episkey

    I’m totally guilty of this. I’m a person who likes a ton of details and sometimes I forget that not everyone feels the same way as I do!

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      It’s always easier to ask someone for more information than to tell someone to shut up or get to the point!

      Reply
  51. Sara M

    I love this thread. I don’t have this problem, but I’m learning a lot about people who do (and how their minds work). Thanks.

    Reply
  52. Sally Sparrow

    So many helpful suggestions. As someone (relatively) brand new to the working world and who tends to babble/ramble (especially when nervous or unsure) these are great.

    Reply
  53. Argh!

    “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
    ― Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters

    Reply
  54. Photog

    I may surreptitiously send this blog post to a contractor I currently work with…who charges by the hour!

    Reply
  55. mull

    “I can’t tell whether your boss has given you feedback on this in the past and is now resorting to a more formal plan because the earlier feedback hasn’t worked, or whether this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Either way, I’d take it seriously, but especially if it’s the former, approach this with the attitude that it’s truly a business necessity to resolve, rather than just a stylistic quirk or preference. Sometimes people who tend toward long-windedness see it as “simply their way” and not a big deal … but it can actually be a serious issue that can make them less efficient and even frustrating to work with, so you want to show that you get that.”

    121 words to say “Take your boss seriously”–am I missing a joke?

    Reply
  56. The Strand

    A copywriting tip, too:

    Use bold text when you want certain concepts, points or features to pop out. Exactly like I see Mike C posted above. This is really helpful when you have to communicate to an audience of people who are both “thorough” / completist and those who want “just the facts”.

    I thought KG’s point about not needing to hear context was interesting. Yes, you don’t need to hear a fact about the history of teaspouts, unless the person is trying to explain why you can’t have the teaspout you keep asking for, because in 1976 the FDA or FTC banned metal X, which can give you that spout you want, for food related products.

    It’s absolutely maddening when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t want context, who is impatient and just wants a “yes” answer as quickly as possible, and then starts screaming at you to find out why you’re telling him or her “no”.

    For these people, any other word, no matter how relevant, is simply a barrier to the only word they want to hear, “Yes”.

    They don’t care that they will save money or avoid a quagmire. They just want you to say “Yes”.

    I currently work with someone who told me he just wants to fix problems, he doesn’t need to discuss why a problem happened. He hates analysis of any kind. Consequently, every week at work seems to bring a new battle for him for him to tackle, oblivious to how a) it could have been prevented with a little thought, b) it’s often the same kind of problem in a different wrapper. On top of that, he rambles in meetings. It’s the worst of both worlds.

    It makes him feel excited, being a “firefighter”, but to work with that attitude … when taking an hour to discuss and plan ahead would save us a lot of grief, that’s pretty damned inefficient in both the short and long terms.

    Reply
    1. Observer

      Well, there is a difference between being concise and being uncommunicative or hasty.

      Refusing to talk about the source of a problem that keeps on happening is not being “concise”. It’s burying your head in the sand.

      As for the screamers, it doesn’t matter if you are a model of effective communications, because they were never listening to begin with. So, as good as all of the advice here is, it won’t work for someone like that.

      Reply
      1. The Strand

        KG was definitely right about the people who give you a lowdown of history that serves more as trivia than context. Fun with a friend, not fun from a coworker or report.

        And some people are insecure or just drone on, absolutely, but occasionally the person criticizing another for “blathering” is actually a hasty (great word for it) non-listener. I was thinking specifically of one leader…

        This leader once asked me a complicated legal question about products in our field and wanted a “yes or no” answer. I answered, “It’s complicated. The answer is a, unless purple conditions happen, in which case it’s b, or red conditions, in which it’s d. You have to check whether there is a specific rider that set up red conditions no matter what. Competitor 1 always has purple conditions, so it’s b. Everyone who works for competitor 2 sets up a rider so they have red conditions.” Now, at least in an email you have bullet points or you can do a table in a presentation. But believe me, this was a concise explanation of a really nebulous question.

        The leader got mad at me. “TMI! Just give me a yes or no answer!” It ended up being sent to a lawyer whose answer was several pages long. I have since been in a meeting in which the same person kept arguing over the interpretation of an agreement with another company, insisting that the words meant something simple and concise, when they actually triggered a hell of a lot of conditions.

        I think when you have someone who wants concise, and the situation calls for completist, you could be in a no-win situation.

        Reply
  57. anon nurse

    Something I’ve learned from nursing and having to call a doctor about a change in patient status: time is of the essence, but they still have to know who you ate taking about and what the problem is. There’s a standard format for this kind of communication called SBAR: Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendation (note: sometimes recommendation is replaced with something along the lines of “what do you want me to do?” or “Should we do X?” rather than an actual, declarative statement.

    Generally each section is fairly short (1-3 sentences), but can be longer if needed.. Sometimes it’s not perfectly transferable to other situations, and some tweaking is needed.

    Often times I use this subconsciously (without the section headers), but when I’m struggling to explain something, I break it down like this. Here’s a non-nursing example:

    Situation: Teapots, Inc. is upset that they were missing three spouts in their shipment.

    Background: Their standing order is to get 15 spouts weekly, today they only received 12, but the packing slip says 15.

    Assessment: We found that the spout counter is freezing after every 6 spiutd, making it seem like the order is filled, when it really needs some more spouts after it unfreezes.

    Recommendation: Ship out remaining spouts overnight, and credit their cost. Contact other customers from the past seven days proactively to ensure their orders were complete. Send for maintenance on the counter, manually rechecking all orders in the meantime.

    Reply
  58. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night

    I’m currently struggling with this – 99% of the time, I’m expected to be chatty, warm and anecdotal – with clients, my manager, and my manager’s manager. However, I’ve recently been required to communicate with the new head of our entire facility occasionally, and have gotten feedback that I’m not nearly as succinct in these interactions as I need to be. All the advice is so helpful!

    Reply
  59. Observer

    I haven’t read all of the responses, so I may be repeating something.

    I disagree that your tendency to be wordy is because the nature of your job is words. I know a number of word smiths, and the best of them are not wordy.

    I’ve been involved in a fair amount if proposal writing over the years. Many of the RFP’s we have responded to have had some fairly strict limits on content, and that has been becoming more common and more strictly enforced when it comes to government contracts. It might be useful if you thought of communications with your boss in those terms. Set some word limits for each type of communications with your boss, and stick to them. Of course, you want to work with him to set those word limits if he’s willing to do that. If not, you’ll need to figure it out yourself, which is much harder. But, I would suggest taking whatever you think is the lowest you can go and cutting it by 30% or so.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      I like the “set word limits” idea! And if you get your boss to OK those word limits, then he also needs to be OK w/ coming back for more information.

      Reply
  60. Brooke

    I love this topic. I value conciseness a great deal. I work with a gal who is great at her job, but the way she speaks in meetings makes her come across totally scattered at our daily departmental check-in meetings. For example, when we go around talking about projects due that day, the rest of us will chirp something along the lines of “I’m finishing up Jane Smith’s Teapot report before her 3pm meeting.” She’ll say something like “Well, this isn’t really a SUPER pressing project, but.. well, she does need it soon… I’ll find out… it’s not too big… not really small either.”

    WHO? WHAT? WHEN? Jesus.

    /rant off

    Reply
  61. Heavenly Mashpea

    Hi OP! I am long-winded as well, and something I have found a great deal of success with is pretending that whomever I am speaking with is about to go into an important meeting in two minutes, and they cannot be late. Thinking this way forces me to say my most important details first, and I end up automatically trimming out whatever content was unnecessary. Maybe this would help you too!

    Reply
  62. Anne

    My Dilbert calendar comic strip this morning that seems applicable right now:

    Boss: Did everyone read my email about how to improve our communication?
    Dilbert: Was it a long, rambling email that stumbled from one barely coherent point to another?
    Boss: The one must have been from someone else.
    Dilbert: Good, because I didn’t read it.

    (Maybe it’s funnier in a comic strip than typed out, but it cracked me up after skimming through the comments).

    Reply
  63. Janelle

    Here’s a helpful tip I picked up in college: make sure the verb is in the first eight words. Any more than that, and readers of English get lost.

    Also: avoid Latin forms of verbs. For reason, Germanic words are easier to understand.

    Reply
  64. Socal Tech

    This one is sorta easy. Take some business writing/communication classes or courses.

    Some hints:

    Keep sentences to 20 words or less.
    Keep paragraphs 5 to 8 sentences or less.
    Use simple words.
    Have a point and make it.
    Don’t include background unless it is needed.
    Active voice tends to have shorter sentences than passive voice.
    Use loose sentences.

    Take out phrases. Don’t say “I am writing to inform you that the report will be done next week.” Use “The report will be done next week.”

    Don’t use a bunch of adjectives.

    Basically remember that you are not writing a novel. Things don’t need to be embellished. Business communication is about clearly delivering your message in a concise format.

    Reply
  65. A.S.

    This is awesome advice! I’ve also been given feedback to be more concise so these tips will be really useful for me.

    Reply
  66. Vicki

    What if the OP actually isn’t “long-winded” but the manager simply has what I call MADD? (which includes the inability to read past the second line of anything written).

    OP, when your manager `dinged you for “not being concise enough” in my communications – written and verbal’ was there ANY specific information, such as “here’s an example; I’d have preferred X”.

    Or was it, literally “you’re not concise enough”?

    So much manager feedback is f the latter form and thus, almost impossible to work on. Feeback needs to be actionable. Otherwise, it’s vague criticism.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      The letter writer acknowledged that she can be wordy, and the manager asked the OP to put together a plan for them to discuss, so I think the intent is to ensure that it’s actionable.

      Reply
  67. ATXFay

    Thank you for this! Super helpful. I tend to be long-winded, so I am keeping all of these pointers in mind.

    Reply
  68. Kay

    Oh yes! Agree with Alison’s advice here. For many people this is a major respect issue. A person can spend more time writing three bullet points than three paragraphs, but she does it because she respects the time of the person who will read them. Also because they’re more likely to be read. Every extra word you add reduces the chance that your message will be effectively communicated.

    Bullet points, bullet points, bullet points.

    Reply
  69. Ruthie

    To be more concise in your speaking and writing, avoid depending on qualifying statements. I work with a lot of people who get lost mid-thought and end sentences along the lines of “…you know what I mean?” No, I don’t.

    Reply
  70. Sally Forth

    Thank you! I have struggled with this my whole career. I’ve never had managers mention it but I’ve seen the look of frustration when I can’t get to the point. This is a good starting point for me.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

You can find the site's commenting guidelines here. You can report an ad, tech, or typo issue here.

Subscribe to all comments on this post by RSS