how to get shorter answers from a rambling employee

A reader writes:

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

I find that she is completely unaware of the issue; often before a meeting when we all agree to be brief, I will do my part (hoping to be an example) but she doesn’t pick up on it.

My main concern is that people really tune her out as she continues to speak. I want her to succeed and so I really want to give her the feedback/tools she needs. I realize this is the way she is, and I’m not sure it can be changed. Do you have any advice?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 186 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Mike C.

    I had a similar issue where I was asked to provide analyses of various data sets to management and I provided all sorts of detailed information, statistical test results, supporting data and so on. I took this route because I was accustomed to a scientific background where results are openly challenged as a matter of course and I wanted to make sure my boss had all the ammunition he would need.

    Well, after the first time he came out of his office and in a very restrained fashion he said, “I don’t have time for all this, your answer should fit in the subject line of an email”. No big deal and it wasn’t an issue going forward, but a direct conversation can go a long way. There are lots of “soft skills” like these that can be improved upon with proper coaching. The idea that “this can’t be changed” is one I see a lot, but I don’t think it’s true.

    Reply
    1. Artemesia

      People who think this way i.e. need all the detail should also be taught to think in two parts e.g. a quick memo with the recommendation and 3 bullet points to support it AND then a backup document with the detailed analysis either attached or indicated as available. It can be a way of weaning them to what is needed and the discipline of having to come up with a recommendation and only 3 bullet points, helps them develop the habit of sorting out what is critical.

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      1. Just another girl in engineering

        This is exactly what I’ve had to do for myself. I used to write extremely detailed explanations for everything. Every email was a 3-page document with headers and paragraphs.
        To stop doing that (because no one bothered to read them and I was wasting my/company time by obsessing over every detail) I started by writing that one first, then writing a bulleted summary and forcing myself to just send the summary. Now I’m better about just writing the bullets first and providing more detail later if it’s needed.

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      2. the gold digger

        I work with engineers in R&D. We are developing a format to present R&D initiatives to senior management. The engineers want to put all the supporting data in the template. I suggested that mgt expects the engineers to have done the analysis and for it to be right and that all they want is the conclusion.

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          1. BeenThere

            I am so thankful my university heavily marked the executive summary on many of our assignments and that it was a thing.

            I had individual lab reports that were 120 pages long, part of me knew there was no way the postgrads were checking everything so I made sure the summaries were immaculate.

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      3. Elizabeth West

        Yes–I learned this at Exjob, about our reports. TeamLead told me clients typically divided them up, and so the executive summary was just that: a short summary of the rest of the report, which went to the bigwigs. The detailed instructions, recommendations, and tables went to staff, whom she called “the worker bees.” They were the ones who needed those details. The execs only needed the gist of things for their meeting–they could ask managers and staff later, or get back to us, if they wanted more info. It was a valuable lesson.

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      4. Misc

        I treat it like the abstract for a journal. I do the research, I can cite evidence as needed, but nobody really reads more than the abstract when they want to know the general answer to something XD

        Reply
    2. Zip Silver

      I ran into the same issue having a background in the liberal arts, rather than business. Took me a while to get concise.

      Reply
      1. De Minimis

        Same here, though now I work for a non-profit that works with writing/communication so people tend to write longer messages.

        Reply
      2. SophieChotek

        Ditto. I have to do what “just another girl in engineering” does — write long detailed reports and then sending the summary version instead. (Sometimes with all the documentation appended.)

        Reply
      3. Sparrow

        I also have this problem, especially working in academia. It’s been particularly challenging in my current role, because I work with both faculty and students. I’m usually telling faculty they’re wrong about something, and I get the best responses if I 1) explain the problem and 2) give a specific solution, provide replacement wording, etc. So the emails can get long and take way too long to write, but they actually read them and almost always do what I tell them even though I’m a lowly staff person!

        Students, on the other hand, will read maybe two sentences. If I have to send a lot of info via email, I do brief bullet points so they can scan easily. It really took some effort to get comfortable switching between the styles so often, but you have to write for your audience.

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    3. paul

      I’m on here waiting for software to compile data (over multi year trends in community needs), which I’ll promptly have to simplify in the extreme, and I know that it’ll be like fingernails ont he blackboard of my soul. It’s like…you want me to make statements don’t you want to know the caveats and limits of those statements and the data behind them?? How can you not?!

      Reply
      1. Mike C.

        Yeah, I put my foot down when talking about the limitations of my work – I’ve had managers who take a good but highly variable/tentative conclusion and decide that everything looks amazing only to get burned later.

        Reply
        1. BeenThere

          Yeah I always include the assumptions and caveats, if they are too long then I put in a link to our highly traceable documentation that outlines the same assumptions and caveats. They are also in the code.

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          1. Chinook

            As a “not a numbers” person who deal with a database that I helped create, this is the only way I can handle giving my big boss annual summaries. Part of why I do it is because I am not confident that I am answering the question he thinks he is asking and part of it is because every year he asks a slightly different question but I know he wants to compare trends over the year. So, now I can go back to the previous years’ reports and assumptions/caveats and make sure that I am making the same ones this time too.

            Of course, the biggest caveat slipped out when he came back the 5th time this year to change yet another assumption in the data – I just looked up at him in frustration and mentioned “you know I am an English major, right?” Luckily, he laughed.

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    4. Anonymoose

      I worry sometimes that I am a rambler. When I was younger (‘back in my day…’), my leader told me the opposite – that I wasn’t providing enough detail, that I ‘start in the middle’ of a story. Maybe the speaker is/was the same, and could use the feedback. I personally didn’t take the feedback badly, in fact it gave us both an opportunity to get onto the same page (I had previously felt that by telling the story from the beginning, I was being condescending – that due to her role and experience she would already know and understand the ‘foundation’ of the topic since our roles were to solve ‘foundation’-related issues. She assured me that it was always best to assume she was a lay person so that I don’t leave any minor but perhaps important detail out.

      And who knows – maybe my old leader was a weirdo and most folks would prefer quick bulleted list with a side offer of ‘ask for details if needed’.

      I too suggest chatting with her but do it in a ‘seek to understand’ angle, not a ‘you’re making everybody fall asleep in meetings’ angle. ;)

      Reply
  2. Just Another HR Pro

    UGH – admittedly I am this person. I wish I wasn’t, but I am so detail-focused and SO worried I am going to leave out an important piece of information. ESPECIALLY if its a topic where I am considered an SME.

    to all my former (and current) managers, coworkers, stakeholders – I am sooo sorry.

    Reply
    1. Jenbug

      I’m afraid I’m this person too. So I will definitely be keeping the tips in mind that Alison gave to apply to myself!

      Reply
    2. Not a Real Giraffe

      I think the important thing to remember is that, after you give the one-minute bullet, people can feel free to ask you questions if they need more information. At that point, you can provide them with the relevant details that you left out in the high-level overview.

      Reply
    3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

      One thing that’s kept this very detail-oriented and verbose scientist on track: BLUF. It’s a guideline the Air Force applies to emails, and it stands for Bottom Line Up Front. I apply it almost everywhere.

      Simply put: what does the recipient need to know to act? Who, what, why, where, when. If they need more detail, deliver it after the BLUF, and expand on points as needed.

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      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

        For example: Your review and approval of the attached Teapot Management Plan is requested NLT COB 8 February 2017 to meet 9 Feb suspense date for submission to State regulatory agency.

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      2. LSP

        As someone with a background in journalism, this is exactly how news articles are written. Don’t bury the lead! Get to the point fast, and then explain the background as needed.

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          1. Willow

            Either’s fine–they starting spelling “lead” as lede so it wouldn’t get confused with the metal lead, which was used in printing.

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      3. Siberian

        I’m a professional writer, and when I took a business writing class in college the lecturer said that every piece of business correspondence must have a call to action. I’m surprised how often people will forget that part, so I’ll get an email with no clear ask about what the person wants me to do. I do think that’s another key element that not only helps the recipient, but helps the sender organize their thoughts and stay goal focused. I always start with the call to action as my first line and then figure out what evidence I need to back it up from there. Because I also can be verbose, I then go back and try to eliminate about 30% of what I’ve written.

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        1. Misquoted

          I do this as well, both in my technical writing and in my emails. And I teach it to my writing students and anyone I might mentor.

          Verbally, though…yeah, I’m a talker. It takes some forethought for me to organize what I want to say in a concise but complete way. It doesn’t come naturally to me so I’ve had to work at it. Both in my personal life and in my professional life (at a company where we all knew each other quite well), I’ve been told to “land the plane, already”.

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          1. Siberian

            Yeah I tell people it’s obvious I’m a better writer than talker. I really do better when I can edit myself.

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        2. Em too

          This is a great technique. I can usually halve the length of my first draft without losing much, and I’ve been known to throw it out as a challenge to team members.

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      4. Anon for this

        Exactly! I do this in corporate emails because if you want employees to DO something, you can’t bury it in the second paragraph. Each email starts with an imperative action verb, e.g. Sign up, Join this, Read that.

        I do it in emails to others–descriptive subject lines, brief requests, bulleted lists! Use the pyramid style of writing.

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      5. Jeff

        Lois McMaster Bujold once outlined the specifications for writing reports to ImpSec. She called it the ABC’s of reporting:
        Accuracy
        Brevity
        Clarity

        I try to remember that formula when doing my own writing.

        Reply
        1. Chinook

          I laughed out loud when I cam across a prayer from St. Thomas Aquinas for student’s during the 1300’s that contained the following (I am guessing this has always been a problem for students):

          “…Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm. Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in the completion…”

          When I give this prayer card to students in Sunday School, I remind them that it is also a good guideline for essay writing.

          Reply
    4. I don't feel like getting jumped on for this post, so anon

      This letter could have been written about me 5 years ago. I had a manager say to me that I didn’t need to show all my work like I was in school anymore; that I was trusted to come to the right conclusion. He also said that senior managers will typically read one page of my presentation, so if they were to do that, what information should it include (the Exec Summary). It’s helped me beyond measure! I am now the only person in my department that can stick to a strict presentation timetable, my writing style is apparently clear and succinct, and the amount of visibility that I get with higher-ups is still astounding to me, purely because I changed my communication style. I will forever thank that manager!

      I also came to the conclusion that I didn’t need to show everyone just how much work had gone into my recommendations – a good sportsman/presenter/actor/etc makes it look easy. That was a light-bulb moment, because I’d been unconsciously resisting this because I wanted them to know just how hard I’d worked!

      Reply
      1. spocklady

        Oooooh I struggle with that too. I continue to work on being really clear with myself on whether I want to be persuasive, or whether I want a gold star for doing a lot of work or “being right”. #struggleisreal

        Reply
  3. LawCat

    On the speaking in meetings, allocate her a set amount of time in the agenda. You can give everyone with slots in the agenda something like a 30 second or 1 minute warning before time is up. This only works if you can enforce it so I’d keep it to meetings you can control like one-on-ones or staff meetings. It would certainly be worth putting forward to others who will be running meetings as well, especially for meetings presenting to higher ups whose time is scarce.

    Reply
  4. Not a Real Giraffe

    One of the biggest kindnesses a grad school professor of mine did was assign us several short memo-style papers throughout the term. He told us that the papers could not exceed more than 2 pages because whatever information you want to convey should be able to be distilled down into 2 double-spaced pages. He said if the paper spilled over onto a third page even by one line, he would throw it in the trash. It was a great lesson in figuring out how to be more concise and how to discern your message from the “fluff” surrounding it.

    (He did actually throw several papers in the trash; another lesson was apparently “how to follow directions.”)

    Reply
    1. Cassandra

      As an instructor in a professional program, I find I have to be similarly draconian in my approach to some students steeped in High Academese. Memos, executive summaries, emailed feedback, presentations — that brevity is the soul of wit just doesn’t penetrate with some folks after their college experiences.

      I often frame this as an exercise in kairos (Greek word meaning “the opportune moment,” sometimes High Academese slang for “knowing your audience and responding accordingly”). Seems to help.

      Reply
      1. Dzhymm, BfD

        that brevity is the soul of wit just doesn’t penetrate with some folks after their college experiences.

        For that I blame the “1000-word essay on your summer vacation”. As schoolkids we’re told we have to write a certain amount about a subject even if we don’t have that much to say about it… so we get used to upping the word count. Eventually it becomes second nature to some people…

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        1. Elizabeth West

          English majors find this to be a valuable skill in certain classes–some instructors want a set number of pages and you have to fill them up somehow. I always used to joke that my BS degree made me a professional bullshitter, LOL.

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          1. Simonthegreywarden

            My dad’s explanation:
            BS = bullshit
            MS = more of the same
            PhD = piled higher and deeper

            I know he didn’t invent it but I still find it clever.

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        2. Nolan

          I had a coworker who was supposed to help me rewrite the user manual for my company’s products. After a review of his first few pages management had to have a sit down with him about formatting and weeding out excessive details. After he was let go, in part because the content of his manual pages was still not up to par, I had to go through them all to make corrections, and found that they had been written in the style of a high schooler who hadn’t done the reading. I don’t think he used a single contraction on any page, and there were several paragraphs that literally said the same thing two or three different ways.

          As a former high schooler who hadn’t done the reading, I guess the universe was just getting revenge on behalf of my old English teachers.

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        3. Not So NewReader

          Even in college the name of the game was “fill pages”. It was a campus-wide expression, “Okay, I will do that part and I will write some BS to fill up the page count we need.”
          When a person used the BS expression it was assumed that person was taking the load off of the rest of the group and the group could look at other things.

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      2. caligirl

        That is so great for your students! I just started an MBA program and am really struggling with the 5-7 page minimums. I told the school academic adviser that they are doing business students a real disservice if they are just starting out in the business world. That didn’t change the requirements, though…

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        1. Not So NewReader

          I found the same thing in undergrad. I tried saying, “No, that is not how it works out there..” I might as well been talking to a wall.

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        2. IJS

          I can give you a grammatically-correct sentence that takes up almost an entire page; I can give you 10 pages with 15 resources in less than six hours. I can also give you a to-the-point explanation. School taught me how to be verbose. Life taught me how to get to the point.

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          1. bluesboy

            Given that you brought up grammar…beautiful use of a semi-colon! I’d love to see that more often.

            Slightly more on topic, I think the important thing is to have a ‘how long should this be’ filter. There are times when 10 pages are right, and there are times when one sentence is enough.

            Personally, although I’m getting better at this, when in doubt in an email to a colleague I write:
            “My conclusion is X, because Y and Z.
            If you want to see my reasoning in full, please have a look at it below:
            Full explanation”

            Reply
    2. Artemesia

      I taught undergraduates to write briefing memos for congressmen (fictional) who were experts on agriculture but not the policy issue they were researching (things like health care, welfare, education, civil rights etc) They had to make a recommendation and then provide some basic data/arguments in support. The memos were then given to another glass team who had to answer press conference questions on the topic with only the information provided in the two page memo. They got good fast at packing key information into short spaces.

      When supervising dissertations I would not discuss the topic with the student until they produced a one page paper in which they identified the question they wanted to pursue, the strategy for pursuing it and why anyone should care about it. If you can’t do this; you don’t have a researchable idea.

      Lots of people have trouble identifying the key points or most relevant information. It takes practice.

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    3. Amber T

      I remember when applying to colleges, some applications had “in 100 words or less, describe…” and it was an exercise! Especially on an application (but in general too), don’t you want to prove how much you know, and how eloquent you are, and how many big words you *know*?

      It did become a standard way to ask a question in my house though, especially with my dad, who has a habit answering 50 questions you didn’t ask before remembering to circle back to your original question (or, if you respond with “that wasn’t my question.” – “What was your question?”). So you ask, “Dad, why is this like this? In 100 words or less!” Usually gets him grumpy but his answers are always much better.

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    4. hodie-hi

      A survey class in young adult literature (required for a BS in secondary education, minor in English) required us to write reviews of each book on a single side of a 3×5 index card. We had to stick to a formula that I have now forgotten, but which included a plot summary, and a recommendation for target audience (such as “boys reading at grade level 6 and above who are interested in sports”) among other things.

      (I wish readers who submit book reviews on Amazon or other sites had this training. Most of those reviews are way too long and detailed, and have spoilers.)

      That semester was excellent training in writing meaty text that was also concise.

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    5. Laura

      I had a grad school prof who gave us similar assignments. We had three two-page policy memos throughout the semester. If you went about two pages, you automatically went down a letter grade for each extra page. He also gave very constructive input on what info to include and how to structure it. This has served me so much better in my career than any of the 20 page research papers have.

      Reply
  5. Marcy

    I used to be a rambler. I think it was because I loved research, and I really wanted to show people how much work I had put into this, and how strong my argument was. I’ve found that following a specific format has really helped me organize my thoughts and cull down the useless information. I use the following:

    Purpose: (I’m writing to you to get a decision on x, this memo is to inform you of y, we’re meeting today to discuss z)
    Issue: One sentence. There is no issue so complex it can’t be summarized in one sentence.
    Recommendation/Conclusion: This one used to kill me, but yes, you put the conclusion first. You are not Sherlock Holmes. The maze of logical deductions leading up to your conclusion is not as fascinating as you think it is.
    Discussion: This is where the rambler will trip up and info dump on her audience. I keep myself in check by saying the discussion section must be written in bullet points, with no more than 10 bullets, and all the bullets must logically flow from one to the next. Save your brilliant research for the footnotes.
    Questions: If you’ve made enough sense that people have followed your argument, they will ask questions and you can flex those intellectual muscles here. If they don’t ask questions, then you did a good job with presenting the information and you should just congratulate yourself.

    Reply
    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist

      This is another good point. A lot of us systematic thinkers like to front-load the context, history, debate, and controversy that led to a conclusion or action item, then hit the action item. What decision makers need is precisely the opposite: I need you to do this, by then, to approve this, so that I can do other stuff, and everything else is optional.

      The stuff you learn as a scientist telling things to people who have planes to fly and bombs to drop. :D

      Reply
      1. NonProfit Nancy

        Haha how do you know a scientist: They lead with the “methods” section. An hour later they get to results.

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      1. Amber T

        This line gave me a good chuckle! In my spare time, I love finding out HOW someone figured something out. But in a professional setting… not so much.

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      2. Asima

        Sherlock often will lead with just his conclusion however, requiring his companions to ask if they want to know the method. So be like Sherlock!

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    2. zora

      My favorite part:
      ” You are not Sherlock Holmes. The maze of logical deductions leading up to your conclusion is not as fascinating as you think it is.”

      This is perfect, thank you!

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      1. Aisling

        This really is perfect! It resonates with me, as I tend to ramble as well. Thank you for providing a reason that I’ll definitely remember.

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  6. NonProfit Nancy

    I love the appendix for this. Folks I work with have a lot of anxiety around leaving out the mind-numbing details so I always suggest they put that in an appendix which can be available on request. Of course this only makes sense if they already have all the information together and can quickly put it in a document; I wouldn’t want them to waste a ton of time producing this appendix nobody wants.

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  7. Jesmlet

    Best thing is to be upfront. If you have an employee like this, just tell them they need to be concise because the more long-winded you are, the less people will pay attention to you when you talk and the more annoying you’ll be to work with. People who talk in circles are the worst and I generally tune them out the second they get started. Conversations and meetings should not be structured like a scientific essay.

    Reply
    1. Jessie

      I regularly spend 15 minutes blankly staring at my deskmate, not internalizing a single word she says, because the answer to my question has gone so wildly off track into in-depth jargon-laden stories from her several-decade-long career.

      Reply
      1. PatPat

        Once I was in a company wide meeting and three coworkers were being recognized for a community service they had performed. The boss asked them to explain their roles and two of the coworkers were able to succinctly sum their roles up in about 30 seconds. The third coworker went on and on and on. Three minutes later when she was still talking, I noticed eyes were glazing over and a couple of people slipped out of the room. At about 3 1/2 minutes when she was still talking but has paused for a breath, someone started enthusiastically clapping and we all joined in, which caused her to stop talking. I could have kissed that original clapper!

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        1. Jesmlet

          Genius, I’ll have to remember that for next time. We have weekly conference meetings and someone from a different location likes to ramble quite a bit and everyone in our office just stares at each other rolling our eyes because it’s just all unnecessary info. Unfortunately she doesn’t come up to breathe too often so it’s hard to get a word in to stop her. Biggest problem is she’s not even rambling about anything relevant.

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      2. MashaKasha

        lol, I’m afraid we all had that coworker! “Back in 1978 when I worked on second floor of this building with (name-drops several people who all left the company in the 80s) (rambling story)”.

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    2. Ann Cognito

      We had an employee like this, actually the IT Manager, and it was p.a.i.n.f.u.l to either receive an email from her (“IT Manager: Why write 10 words when 20,000 will do?” – that’s what we called her!), or listen to her in meetings. Her supervisor was useless and said he gave her the feedback, but it obviously didn’t work… until he was forced to deal with it.

      It became serious when six of the leadership team missed some important information she had sent out about a security update, since none of them had bothered to read her email correctly. Some said they scanned it; others admitted they didn’t even read it as it was too long, and too often in the past they would read it all, only to find it didn’t have anything to do with them. The pertinent info was buried somewhere in the middle of the thousands of extraneous words. Her manager was told in no uncertain terms to deal with the situation ASAP. At that point he did.

      Reply
      1. Chaordic One

        So often the people with these kinds of problems are managers or directors. They just don’t get it, and you really can’t say anything to them without risking your relationship with them.

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    1. Grey

      Sorry. I meant to say:
      I like that the new answer to getting shorter answers is shorter than the original answer. :)

      Reply
    1. always in email jail

      This is great, I’m printing it and posting it on my wall as a reminder to myself for now! Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  8. Lovemyjob...Truly!!!

    I have a coworker who does this. Part of our job is to take calls and then enter notes on what was discussed. She writes a book each time! She comments on every aspect of the call: “caller was upset and said “Blah Blah Blah” in a disappointed tone of voice. I explained that we were sorry for the delay, but that the teapots were taking longer than expected due to back orders. Caller said she understood but still wants to discuss issues with supervisor”
    The rest of us write: Caller was upset. She was advised of the delay and voiced understanding but would like a supervisor call back.
    What’s worse is if she takes a difficult call that requires another person to work it she will enter her book sized note, send that person the note and then call that person to explain the situation. GAH!

    Reply
    1. zora

      Ugh, so many sympathies, she might be the long lost twin of my coworker, who writes a wall of text email to ask me to do a task that could be summed up in 5 words, and then barely moments after it appears in my inbox, she calls me and basically reads the entire email to me verbatim. Then even if I say, “Yes, sure, I’ll do it!”, she decides to reiterate why she needs me to do the task for another few minutes. I am not arguing with you! Please stop talking so I can just do the thing!!

      Reply
    2. Cassie

      My coworker is like this. I emailed her with a simple question – do you have a link to the XYZ policy? She responded with a detailed essay about how she called two departments to check on this, and they told her this and that, and then she brought up something and pushed them on the issue, and they said something else.

      She could have simply replied and said “after checking with Dept A and Dept B, we determined that XYZ is more of a guideline than an official policy”.

      Ugh.

      Reply
  9. Bad Candidate

    I had a coworker who was like this, and not just with work stuff. She’d go on and on about finding her kid shoes at Stride Rite and how she’d been to every single store in the NW Chicago suburbs. And in between the second and third retellings she’d take a deep breath and say “So, in a nutshell…” and then continue to tell you again about whatever it was she was telling you.

    Reply
    1. DeskBird

      Clue was one of my favorite movies growing up, and there is a running joke where someone will say “to make a long story short” and everyone else yells “too late!”. It is a driving motivation in my life to be able to say “too late” whenever anyone says “to make a long story short” to the point where I have been unable to stop myself from saying it in a work setting a few times, both casual and in meetings. I have no regrets.

      Reply
  10. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

    I am long-winded, and no one ever brought it up. But I could see that I was losing people. So I started developing all sorts of habits to be more prepared when I had to speak, and I spend an inordinate amount of time “editing down” my emails. I’ve also gotten in the habit of asking how much depth someone wants when they ask a question. That way I’m not over- or under-inclusive, but I’m also exercising some self-awareness/discipline.

    So it might also be helpful to give the employee tools for how to take more ownership over getting feedback on her long-windedness.

    Reply
  11. Koko

    Ughhh I have a vendor I work closely with who is exactly like this. We have a standing phone call every week and he talks endlessly while saying nothing. I honestly start to feel like I want to tear my own skin off listening to him say the same thing 3 different ways. Sometimes he asks me a question and I keep trying to jump in to answer but he just keeps rephrasing the question and offering examples of the types of answers I might give and I just want to scream, “SHUT UP SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!” but I bite my tongue. It is honestly the most agonizingly painful half an hour of my week every week.

    Reply
    1. DeskBird

      That’s what gets to me the most about the letter – not oversharing lots of extra details but the rephrasing the same info three different times. That is what will truly make your audience crazy. I’ve recently had to start meetings with a member of the staff who I have liked for years – but he does this in meetings and now just seeing his face makes a pool of dread from in my stomach. I have no idea how you can bring this up tactfully – but you should try to approach this somehow too. Maybe do a post-meeting autopsy with them once in awhile to coach them on their progress? “I noticed that you reiterated that the teapots are two shades darker than the prototype three times – next time try to state it once and move on to X info?”

      Reply
    2. Elizabeth West

      My boss at OldExjob was like that. If he was telling you something, you had to stand there and listen to him say the same thing several times. If you tried to say, “I got it,” and get away (because you had work to do!), he would get mad. Soooo annoying.

      Reply
      1. Dzhymm, BfD

        After I gave notice at $OldJob, we were in a meeting. My boss was calling in remote (wife just had a baby) and did something similar. He was really urgent about the piece of the project I was wrapping up, and mentioned its importance several times. Every time I said “Yes, I get it” he’d launch into his spiel Yet Again. Finally I took a deep breath, pulled up my strongest baritone, and said “Fergus, you’ve said the same thing three times already. I. Heard. You.“.

        Dead silence for several seconds at the other end of the phone as he processed the fact that I could very well make my resignation effective immediately. He was very polite after that and I served out my notice period and wrapped up my project very nicely (because I’m a professional that way)

        Reply
    1. HR Ninja

      I was just about to ask this! Not only is my boss long-winded when talking to him directly, but his chatter is nonstop. He’s constantly singing, whistling, or talking to nobody in particular. He’s very boisterous which can be distracting at best and grating at worst.

      Reply
    2. BRR

      This is my question as well. My department head can easily repeat the same point three times with four times the necessary words. She also has a talent for being able to always get in first when there’s silence.

      Reply
    3. Marcy

      You practice looking fascinated in the mirror, then sprinkle pointed questions throughout to get your answers.
      “So would you say the issue here is….?” “Just so I’m clear on next steps, you think I should….?” It will still take forever. Some people, you ask them for the time and they build you a clock. When that person is your boss, you thank them for the lovely clock.

      Reply
    4. Not So NewReader

      How I would handle it would depend on my relationship with my manager.

      A few of the things I have done:

      1) (Interrupting:)” Whoops, sorry. I did not mean to tie up your time with a longer question. I just want to know if you want me to use the green ones or the purple ones, that’s all I need to know.”

      (Works well when there are specific choices to be made and shows how it is to the boss’ advantage to just pick a choice and return to what she was doing.)

      2) (Wait for boss to pause for a second) “Yes, I understand that the original wheel was built a bazillion years ago. What I really need to know is where the wheels are for this file cart we just bought. I want to assemble the cart before I go home.”

      (This is a redirect and I have also managed to work in a deadline, I want to get this work done before I go home in an hour. I have set myself up, so when the boss progresses to Wheels of the Renaissance Era, I can reference going home in an hour “which is how long it will take to finish putting the new file cart together so we can start using it tomorrow”.)

      3) Other times, I have opened my question with, “Very briefly, what is the update on the Smith file?’ OR “I don’t want to tie up your time but I do need to know what the change on the Smith file was.” Sometimes I have just softly said in the middle of the long explanation, “So, going forward, what would you like me to do as next steps on the Smith file?”

      Reply
  12. ZNerd

    This is me, I confess. (Witness this reply!) I do work on it continuously and am highly conscious of it. She can absolutely get better at it, with work on her part and patience on yours. Additional suggestions:

    * When possible, give her warning before expecting a verbal response. That could be an IM before a call (“need to ask you about X”) or a meeting agenda (“you’ll have 5 min to cover Y”). Prep time helps me sort through my thoughts and distill them better. If I get an unexpected question, I will ramble through some/all of the answer. I’d rather do that in my head before I speak out loud, and I’m sure my boss prefers that too.

    * Help her identify necessary vs supplementary vs unnecessary data, esp for written work. I LOVE facts, and even though I know not everyone thinks like me, the line between “this much” and “too much” is hard to find. I’m much better now at creating a summary, which typically is all my boss needs. It helps me mentally to move the supporting information into attachments or some other reference, so I know it is available if needed. I think about it like academic articles, where even the most complex treatise is summarized in a few sentences.

    Finally, recognize that there are several reasons this happens. Some of it is just inexperience, I’m sure. It is hard to be concise! But it can also be pride (showing off the work), or insecurity (but what if you don’t believe me?), or differences in how people make decisions (wait, you don’t need the numbers?).

    Reply
    1. Beezus

      +1 for the warning for a verbal response. I need that too. It’s especially bad if the subject is a complex problem I’m in the middle of solving. I can’t shift quickly from 20,000 leagues under the sea to a 30,000 foot overview – you’re going to get some extraneous detail if you ask.

      Reply
      1. Jean who seeks to be Ingenious

        >I can’t shift quickly from 20,000 leagues under the sea to a 30,000 foot overview …

        I’m replying late to tell you that this is brilliant! I may steal it or adapt it (e.g., “I can’t shift quickly from 20,000 leagues under the sea to a seagull’s-eye-view”).

        How many times have I surfaced from the depths to goggle glassy-eyed at some hapless colleague with a question…?

        Reply
  13. Isben Takes Tea

    I can highly recommend “Writing Without Bullshit” by Josh Bernoff. It’s a lifesaver, even to those of us who thought we were already good at communicating!

    Reply
  14. Merida May

    My best friend’s husband has a tendency to be long winded, and she’s occasionally told him to “land the plane” when he starts to launch into a details tailspin. I realize this is not necessarily appropriate in a work context, but I thought it was a lighthearted way to address it socially with people you’re close to.

    Reply
    1. zora

      I should tell my boyfriend this one.. I fall into the rambling trap sometimes, especially when I’m tired or it’s a subject I’m super super excited about. I’ve gotten much better at it over the years, but I have noticed my bf gets frustrated when I do it, but unfortunately, I usually don’t catch on until it is too late. I should encourage him to be more proactive about pointing it out to me. ‘Land the plane’ is good…

      Reply
  15. AdAgencyChick

    I have been known, when a long-winded coworker stops to take a breath, to interject with, “What is it you’re asking me to do?” This often gets them to quit explaining all the backstory behind their request and just make the damn request.

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth West

      I had to learn to do this as a receptionist–callers would often just launch into a lengthy tale before asking to speak to someone. I learned to interrupt them early on because I knew that once they got to the person they wanted, they’d just have to repeat it again. If they didn’t know, I could help them figure it out, but not while they were telling me about the latte they had when the issue they were calling about happened.

      Reply
  16. TootsNYC

    I’m glad this is an old one, so I know it’s not about me.

    (I’m not that bad, I promise. And I’m working on it.)

    Reply
  17. Feather Face

    This can also be an office culture issue. At my entry level job, I had a micromanager. She required email justifications for everything, down to why I selected that specific pen to purchase rather than this other pen. When I left that job and moved to a new company, they also required emails to track everything because they were coming out of an OCR investigation (Title IX violation at a university) and had learned at great expense to document everything. While I did not have to go into quite as much detail, it definitely took time for me to learn the appropriate balance between information that is needed and information that is not. Some of this may not be her natural inclinations but rather what she was taught, so you will want to address that potential by teaching her otherwise.

    OP, have the conversation with her and coach her. Be patient but firm. Give her a good format to follow. I like to use my son’s first grade homework format: Topic Sentence, 3 “juicy” details, conclusion. “We are having an issue with teapot design development for project xyz. The design team has four theme options and is evenly divided on which to pursue. Two options have extra costs but could potentially have a higher price point or become a special edition. The other two match the requested design details better and meet costs. Could you provide guidance on how to narrow down theme options?” Now your employee isn’t giving details on the four different themes, the additional costs, the potential for special edition, etc., but rather just giving the overview. It’s easy to respond to. If you need details, you go get those details separately.

    Reply
    1. Merida May

      Great point, this could certainly be something that’s carried over from another job. Also love the homework format guideline! That’s such a great way to explain it.

      Reply
    2. always in email jail

      Yes, I’ve become long-winded and it is definitely from having a micromanager for a boss at my previous job. I felt the need to explain the thought-process behind the decision or proposal, address questions/objections upfront, etc. I’m really trying to work on it in a new job where my boss just trusts that I’ve thought through everything already, but it’s difficult!

      Reply
    1. fposte

      This is such a good point. Your goal is not to ensure nobody has to ask you anything else; it’s just to communicate the main information.

      Reply
    2. Whats In A Name

      This is another crucial point.

      Deliver the need-to-know and let them ask clarifying questions. If you get too many of hte same question then address is more broadly. I still have to remind my self of this – often. Sometimes I get lost in the weeds.

      Reply
    3. NW Mossy

      Yeah, I tend to include too much info when I start trying to anticipate questions. Better to just give the minimum and then deal with the 5% that come back with “What about….?” rather than spend 20 minutes on every email.

      Reply
      1. College Career Counselor

        I understand the point, but I have found working in an academic setting, sometimes your audience goes out looking expressly for WhatAbouts and HaveYouConsidereds (even when they AGREE with you, because they’re being thorough you see). And then won’t believe you when you say “Yes, we have.” Oy.

        Reply
        1. NW Mossy

          True – I’ve got a few people I work with (not academics, but research nerds nonetheless) who love that type of weed-wandering, and I will accommodate those people in a conversation within reasonable limits. However, the overwhelming majority do not care, so I’m not going to do all the extra work to give them something they never wanted in the first place.

          Reply
        2. AcademiaNut

          And really, in research the WhatAbouts are part of the point – have you properly considered potential sources of error or bias or contamination of the data or systematic effects or alternate explanations properly. It’s better to have someone ask you this in a colloquium or conference talk, or a referee poke at it in the publication process, than to, say, come out with a major press release and have to retract the results later (this happened in my field recently – from potentially Nobel prize winning results with major media coverage to “oh yeah. oops.”) Or the ever popular “just because it *might* be a planet doesn’t mean there’s actually a planet there, even if extra-solar planets are really cool right now, and you really would like it to be.

          If you try to publish a paper and don’t include some of the major what ifs, or address alternate explanations (with numbers!), a good referee will fire it right back at you for more work.

          So it can be really disorienting coming from that background to be expected to just give the final answer, saying, essentially “I’m the expert – trust me!” as your justification.

          Reply
    4. Lore

      Yes yes yes! It’s a hard balance for me because I have an immediate boss who values concision and a super-boss who gets very testy if any critical detail is omitted. But as my immediate boss says, just because I’m the one noting a question doesn’t mean I am obligated to present seven possible answers at the same time. It’s difficult for me but liberating also.

      Reply
    5. always in email jail

      This is certainly my weakness. I want to address all questions/arguments upfront, instead of as they come. I need to work on that!

      Reply
  18. Collie

    Some people genuinely don’t realize this, and they feel that their work won’t be credible or will seem incomplete if they don’t include all relevant details on the topic.

    Oh look, it’s me.

    In all seriousness, I have a hard time with determining what is/isn’t necessary. I can’t wrap my head around the idea of upper management not needing all of the details to make a (well-informed) decision and since I’m the most junior, I can’t easily predict what details are actually important details that could affect the outcome and what details are superfluous because I don’t have the years of organization/field context. I’ve sometimes fallen into the trap of leaving important things out for the sake of brevity and getting burned for it. I’m working on it, but it’s a struggle.

    Reply
  19. Stellaaaaa

    In my experience, lots of people who develop this habit are very accustomed to not being listened to. Sometimes they’re even blamed later on for not relaying information that they did in fact communicate to the necessary people. She’s repeating herself because there are details she perceives as being crucial, likely because she was told they were at some point.

    Is the employee in a position where tidbits of information can make or break a project? Has she ever been blamed or reprimanded in the way I described above? It only takes one instance of this to flip the switch that says, “I need to speak this message 4 times because otherwise they won’t remember and I’m the one who’ll get yelled at.”

    Another note: if this is a position that requires the employee to be thorough and precise, this is just something that tends to come with the territory. You could very well be telling her to damp down on a quality that makes her good at the job.

    Reply
    1. kb

      I was coming here to say the same thing! Especially if the employee is repeating themselves, that’s often a reaction to not having been listened to. It’s not effective because then people react by tuning them out more, but it definitely happens.

      It also could be a nervous tick– I definitely ramble in response to awkward silence to fill the void.

      Reply
      1. Stellaaaaa

        I’ve mentioned this here before: despite being a perfectly neutral trait that is generally a sign of wanting to be nice to other people, extreme chattiness is considered to be a massive personality flaw. There are way worse traits that aren’t spoken about as things to be changed or managed.

        Reply
        1. caryatis

          How is it a neutral trait? I think LW and Alison explained that this long-windedness wastes people’s time and causes them to tune out. They’re probably dreading any time this person opens her mouth. Not good for her reputation.

          Reply
          1. Stellaaaaa

            Talking too much in the interest of trying to do the job right isn’t on par with being a liar or a misogynist or a lazy worker. There’s no malice in talking too much.

            Reply
            1. fposte

              It’s not malice, but it’s a problematic behavior, it does affect productivity, and it’s going to be good for everybody if it’s managed. Speaking as a rambler myself.

              Reply
              1. Stellaaaaa

                The issue here is that OP admits that the details are often helpful in the job that the employee is doing, as per the second sentence if the email. Sometimes the nature of a position means you’re more likely to attract applicants/employees whose personalities veer in odd directions. You wants someone who’s thorough and notices tiny details? This is the person who’s going to be best for the position.

                OP needs to make it clear that the employee isn’t responsible for the information once she has delivered it. She’s behaving as if she feels it’s up to her to help people interpret the info rather than just being the messenger, which to me indicates that she’s worried that mistakes down the line will be traced back to her.

                Reply
            2. Ask a Manager Post author

              It’s not malice, but it can still be problematic and annoying.

              I mean, someone who has awful B.O. isn’t displaying malice either, but it will make people want to quickly wrap up interactions with them and it’s worth working on. (That’s a terrible analogy, I know.)

              Reply
              1. Stellaaaaa

                I’ve noticed that the commenters on forums like this one (which tend to attract a high proportion of introverts) can view chattiness as something that other people are inflicting upon them. It’s important to remember that the impulse to over-explain essential project information is coming from a place of being helpful and wanting to do a good job, at least in this instance as described in the email. Casting chattiness as something that’s wholly bad and needs to be minimized all around would hurt the morale of this employee. I think a decent solution would be to tell the employee to keep things short in meetings but that she can use her normal mode of talking in one-on-one conversations and emails with OP. Somewhere along the line, someone probably does need the detailed explanations that the OP claims to value in the beginning of the email.

                Reply
                1. MWKate

                  I think there is danger in implying that her regular mode of chatting is ok in emails and one on ones. It’s not chattiness in general that is an issue, but it is an issue when the individual can’t recognize and monitor themselves in a professional environment. Even if she just sticks to meetings, she’s going to be the person that stops by for a chat and people scatter, or when they get an email they are going to scan through and miss important detail.

                  Working with the employee on appropriate and meaningful communication is going to be a much better service to her in the long run. As long as it’s not phrased as “You’re irritating and need to stop talking so much,” the manager can coach her and set her in a much better professional position.

                2. Stellaaaaa

                  MWKate:

                  I would be approaching this differently if OP had not conceded in the second sentence of her email that the detail-oriented ramblings often contain valuable information. The talking is a problem in meetings where everyone else’s time is being held hostage. It’s not a problem when she’s speaking to a manager about information that the manager admittedly needs.

                3. fposte

                  If you don’t have a concise setting on your conversation, you’re missing an important workplace skill. Even in academics :-).

                  You keep focusing on the malice aspect, and it doesn’t really matter; poor writers aren’t poor writers out of malice either, but that holds them back too.

                4. kb

                  A tip that helped me a lot with speaking at work is that I should stop taking a lack of verbal confirmation/visual reactions from my audience as a prompt to keep explaining. People generally carry themselves more neutrally at work than anywhere else, so you’re just not going to get the same visual queues/reactions you get in social interactions. In meetings I’d get nervous when I made my point and then people would just stare at me. I thought they were blankly staring due to lack of understanding when in actuality people in meetings tend to stare at the speaker neutrally unless they have a point of contention or very strongly agree (and my work is a niche most people don’t have strong opinions about). There are definitely people who just like to gab or hear their own voice, but I think nervous over-sharing/explaining is also pretty common.

                5. Elsajeni

                  @Stellaaaaa: I don’t understand the idea that rambling isn’t a problem as long as it contains some valuable information. The problem is that she’s communicating poorly; if anything, the fact that what she’s trying to communicate is sometimes important makes that a bigger problem, because it means those important details are at risk of getting lost in the stream of words.

            3. Not So NewReader

              While the talker may not have bad intents, their over-talking/over-explaining can be read in a negative context.

              The one I see the most often is, “Jane must think I am stupid. She explained this to me three times.”

              There is a message there that the speaker does not think the listener was able to grasp the points on one run through. I have seen people break down and say, “I am not stupid and I am not a child, when you explain something three times to me, I start to realize what you actually think of me.” At this point it really has no bearing what the intention of the talker was because this is a huge misread that will cause the talker significant problems.

              OTH, a talker can come across as not understanding the circumstances or the actual question. This is not good as people can start to think that the talker does not understand the overall task at hand or maybe even her job.

              What starts out with no malicious intent can later land in a bad place, with the illusion of malice from the start.

              Reply
              1. fposte

                If it’s really ingrained, it will also cause people to start to avoid that employee, because she’s a time suck.

                Reply
  20. Whats In A Name

    This was me, and can be me now if I don’t monitor myself carefully. I was 5 years into my professional career before my BestBossEver (for many reasons) had a talk with me about my over-detailing/repeating information. In my case we need to get through things and QUICK and I was wasting too much time.

    I’d suggest finding out why your employee does this – it might be any reasons listed above but for me it was none of those. For me they were way deeper rooted in personality/need for visual approval of understanding.

    When it came to speaking there were 2 major things that led me to this behavior:
    1) I wanted there to be a seamless end – it was almost like I was trying to end a speech with some profound sentence and if it didn’t sound “ending-like” I’d just say it another way and
    2) This was the biggest: I’d need affirmation of what I just said. If I looked around and didn’t get head nods, thank yous or “yes yes”‘s I would try a different explanation.

    The problem with email was simpler: I wrote like I talked.

    How I fixed each:
    Speaking: I go in with some bullet points and then just end. Sometimes I add: “does anyone have any questions?” or “did everyone catch that?”….I know people sometimes think that’s demeaning but it keeps me on track and might work for your employee.
    Emailing: I write an email and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then I got back, eliminate the unnecessary words and then send it.

    Reply
    1. Siberian

      You just gave me some insight into our new and very long winded supervisor. She seems very insecure about whether we understand what she’s saying, agree with what she’s saying, etc. If we don’t have happy faces on because we’re thinking or considering how to handle her request or suggestion, she gets very nervous and then starts explaining and justifying all over again. During a meeting I have had to rescue a colleague who never said a word against our supervisor’s request but was nonetheless being repeatedly told why it was a good request. I finally just rather rudely interrupted and said, “I think Guinevere and all of us are totally on board with the idea of that spreadsheet! That looks like Guinevere’s ‘thinking’ face, not her ‘disagreeing’ face. Did I get that right Guinevere?” Then we all got to see Guinevere ‘s “incredibly relieved face.”

      Some of us have actually cried over the stress either during or after meetings, because the supervisor can be so relentless in a very nice and bewildered way. It’s surprisingly stressful to be on the receiving end of.

      Reply
      1. Whats In A Name

        Well hopefully I’ve never made anyone cry but this can be a source of long-windedness and I was lucky enough to get feedback and coaching earlier in my career than many. For your supervisor the only coaching may be able to come from upline. I wish I could help!

        I do think saying “I think we are all on board with that.” Or saying “I gotcha” and repeating back what she said before she has the chance to explain again could help you manage up to her instead of ending up so frustrated.

        Reply
        1. Siberian

          Oh I sure didn’t mean to imply that you also might have made people cry! And I should be clear that this person is really, really nice and just can’t quite figure out how to communicate with us if actively yet. I think she would be horrified to realize how stressed she makes us sometimes.

          As the person in our team who is most willing to be direct and blunt with our new supervisor, I am effectively trying to manage up. It’s working, but of course it’s working better for me than it is for my teammates because they’re not as comfortable pushing back. And to be fair, although we all work under the teapot director, they are both teapot junior directors and I am a teapot marketer. So I’m more of a specialist and can just do my own thing. I’m not normally like this, so it’s experiment for me.

          Reply
    2. Kelly L.

      Ending-like! I can so relate to that. It came from academic papers and needing to shift into Conclusion-Speak for the last paragraph of any essay or paper. The worst was when an exam had multiple essay questions presented at once, and I ran out of “profound” cliches and knew the professor would notice I was using the same ones again.

      Reply
    3. Not So NewReader

      Nothing wrong with asking for a response from your audience. Matter of fact, it shows consideration. It might feel weird at first.

      I have seen people set up like this:
      “We have three steps in this process that we need to cover. When I am done explaining each step, I am going to ask for questions. I want you to have a solid understanding of that step before we go to the next step.”

      I actually like this. I like that the process we are going to follow is explained up front and I like the fact that I know when I can ask my questions.

      The informal, “did everyone catch that?” is good too. Most people do not expect a conversational tone in a presentation. I think that tone helps everyone to relax and really think about what is being said.

      Reply
  21. Lindsay

    I have struggled with the same issue. I try to talk (and write) in bullet points. Still a struggle sometimes, but people have noticed an improvement

    Reply
  22. JMegan

    As someone else who never says ten words when a hundred will do, I always appreciate the managers who have taken the time to coach me on it. Thanks to the OP for writing in, and thanks to Alison for reprinting the letter!

    Reply
  23. Barney Barnaby

    On a more abstract level, a higher-up’s time is usually more important, more limited, and/or more expensive than a junior employee’s time.

    That manifests itself in different ways depending on the workplace and the situation – getting the grunt work, being asked to proofread your own work several times before submitting to a managing partner, or, as in this situation, taking some extra time to be concise.

    The format that I usually use is a summary right up front (result, action item, recommendation), and then a detailed analysis to follow. If something about the summary seems off, they can read through the rest; they can skim the rest; they can ignore the rest.

    Reply
  24. Unsolicited Advice

    Also, your employee might be an “external processor.” She thinks out loud while she’s speaking rather than to herself before she speaks. My boss does this. It might help to point out that she could come to meetings where she knows what she might be asked about with some prepared sentences about that topic. For example, if she’s coming to a meeting on project updates, two sentences summing up her process on her major projects.

    Reply
  25. Dzhymm, BfD

    It might be good to pay attention to communication style as well. I had one employee who would ramble for a while to get to the point. One day I realized that her communication style was what I’d call “narrative”; that is, if she had a problem she’d tell me the whole story leading up to the problem (“I filled the teapot, then I put it on the stove and turned on the burner, then the water started to boil, then I put the tea in…” and eventually she got to the part where she picked up the teapot and the handle broke off). Once I made her aware of this she understood that it would be better if she told the story in reverse order; lead off with the problem, then the things that led up to it… and that I could inform her when I’d gotten enough context.

    There were a few slip-ups after that, but all I had to do was say “Jane, you’re narrating again” and she’d get back on track.

    Reply
    1. Whats In A Name

      This is actually really good advice. I do this in my personal life and my partner is always like “what the f are you trying to tell me already?!?!”

      Reply
    2. Back to the Beginning

      This. I am the decision maker who needs to spot the issues (why might the handle have broken?). If someone tries to tell me the story without telling me what the problem is first, I cannot do my job. If they insist on doing it that way, then nothing they say is relevant because I don’t know what I’m looking for. Once they get to the end, I have to tell them to do it over so that this time I can spot the problems and come up with a solution. I always interrupt at the beginning if I can see that it is going to be a story and tell them to tell me what the problem is FIRST and then tell the story, but some people get really defensive about this or can’t seem to do it.

      Reply
    3. Cassie

      I tend to do this when retelling something that happened to me. My family and friends will jump in and start guessing the punchline. So nowadays, I pick a couple of important points, cut down on the other details, and get to the punchline much quicker.

      Reply
  26. ModernHypatia

    I joke sometimes that conciseness is the least of my many virtues, because I am so bad at it. (If I’m writing something significant, I spend about as much time editing as I do writing.)

    I’m currently in a job (research librarian) where people will ask me a question, I do a bunch of digging, and then know I need to condense down. I have gotten in the habit of doing “Here’s a brief summary.” (a paragraph per question/person/topic, usually) with an attached file with the longer research. That file also goes in a project folder so I can find it again.

    Doing it that way has paid off big several times – most recently, the 18 pages of notes I had on six alumni turned out to make a question from a descendant of one of them into a simple thing to pull sources for and send along, where if I hadn’t written it up like that it would have taken hours to recreate the info. That helps make people be more tolerant of my tendencies to document all the things.

    Reply
  27. Newby

    My boss is extemely busy so I quickly learned to boil things down to the minimum amount possible. I would end up with “I need X” and then if she needed more information, she would ask. She almost never did. It felt really weird to be making requests for resources without justifying exactly why is was needed and showing that I had looked at alternatives, but she trusted me and assumed I had already done that.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      She can tell by your work that you are trustworthy. And she can tell a lot of things about you just by looking at work you have completed. In some jobs an employee’s outputs gives insights into how they think.

      Reply
  28. Anon 12

    Coaching on this can include –

    Think about the context. If the audience is not made up of subject matter experts, the details will be white noise.

    What do you want to happen as the result of you giving this information? Should people walk out of the door with a specific understanding, bottom line set of facts or will they have an action item? Starting with that often helps.

    As somebody else pointed out, learning to watch body language is hugely important. If you can see you are starting to lose them, go to the bottom line.

    Reply
  29. AcidMeFlux

    I teach EFL (English as a Second Language)to professionals in Europe, and many have this problem. I’ve got good results from using guided online/interactive writing exercises. There are a lot available online, not only for EFL/ESL (English as a Second Language) students but even for native speakers. You can find useful resources Googling “brevity in writing” “editing business writing for clarity”…etc. You may also find that looking at sites for professional schools and graduate programs. I’ll put some links I’ve found to be helpful in my next comment.

    Reply
  30. Ann Furthermore

    The relative of the rambler is the person in love with the sound of their own voice. There was a guy at my last company like this — he was actually an employee of the parent company, and expected that we great unwashed masses at the subsidiary level would hang on his every word.

    I got trapped in an all-day meeting with him once, and we all had to spend the day listening to him giving us advice and feedback on the most basic, obvious things. It was brutal. I grumbled about it later to my daycare lady when I picked up my daughter, and said it was like if someone from the state was reviewing her daycare, and giving her “tips” like, “Have you ever considered having the kids do crafts?” and then having to say, “OMG, I never would have thought of that! Thank you, what a great suggestion!” with a big smile on her face. It was brutal.

    The worst though, was when we took a break halfway through the morning. At 10:15 the moderator said, “Let’s reconvene in 10 minutes,” and Mr. Windbag launched into a lengthy dissertation about how it’s more accurate, and people will be more punctual, if you say, “Let’s reconvene at 10:25,” instead of, “Let’s reconvene in 10 minutes.” When he was done, it took everything I had not to say, “Well, you’ve been yip-yapping for so long that it’s now 10:18. Does that mean we should start back up again at 10:28?” My boss would not have been amused though.

    Reply
  31. LittleLove

    From the Incredibles “You’re monologuing again.” In other words, the bad guy is babbling on, telling the complete background of and all the details for his plan. Which the hero then takes advantage of. You don’t want to monologue.
    I also sometimes use the whirling finger wrap up signal used on the TV stages. My husband and I both studied TV production in college that he gets this. He gives me a dirty look but he gets it.

    Reply
  32. Bluesbelle

    This behaviour is so annoying and, unfortunately, tolerated at my current job. One woman in particular is bad enough that she actually doubles the length of every meeting she’s involved in. I’m not her boss, so there’s not much that I can do about it. However, I’m very clear with my manager about the cost of this sort of behaviour (i.e. “Because our staff meeting took 2 hours instead of 1 due to Schmendy’s report on teabags, I will now only be able to get done X and Y priorities. Z will now be completed tomorrow.”). Hopefully, if I repeat this often enough, they’ll understand the true cost of her rambling.

    Reply
  33. Tiger Snake

    Someone once told me that to identify whether someone is an extrovert or an introvert, ask them what they fear more: that what they say will be _ignored_, or what they say will be _misunderstood_.

    I don’t know if the introvert vs. extrovert part is true, but I do know people can ramble for different reasons.
    Does she feel like people aren’t listening to her? That she needs to justify her findings, or the amount of time she’s spent working on something? Does she think that everyone should to be as interested in the data as she is? Or is she trying to make sure everyone understands her point – some maybe if she says it in three different ways you’ll understand it in exactly the same way she does?

    This last one is me; and even knowing that I can ramble and that it can be a problem, its hard for me to fix because its a fear reflex.

    Asking why and finding out why your employee is putting too much information in will help you guide her.

    If she thinks she needs to justify something, you can reassure her. If its because she thinks everyone is interested, you can get her to focus on the most interesting parts and work on refining her understanding of that. If she’s doing it out of a fear reflex, you can send her to resources that will help her refine her speaking and writing skills, and then encourage her to be more confident.

    Reply
      1. Tiger Snake

        TBH, I was under the impression that indifference meant people didn’t ramble because, well, they didn’t really care anymore. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who just talks and talks and talks because they don’t care, so I’m not sure.

        Reply
  34. MWKate

    This is so common at my current job. There are a few especially long winded coworkers and walking into a conference room and seeing them sit their makes my anxiety sky rocket. Something about spending 15 minutes listening to what should be a 4 minute explanation gives me a physical reaction.

    What seems especially common here, is spending a significant amount of time going over information that everyone in the group clearly knows. If you are sitting in a room with 4 teapot managers, you can likely skip the part about how handle strength is an important part of teapot design. In one on one conversations I try to guide them out of that trap by saying, “Yes, got it, exactly,” etc to let them know I am well aware of the concept and to get to the point. It rarely seems to work though.

    As a result, in meetings and other conversations I’ve tended to get almost too short. If the three people speaking before me are taking 10 minutes instead of 5, I end up having to wrap my updates up in a minute or two. Unfortunately I sometimes feel like this makes it seem that I am not as invested, or doing as much – when in reality we are already 10 minutes over schedule and someone else needs the room.

    Reply
  35. The Tired Energizer Bunny

    I work as a business analyst/developer on software projects. My work is highly technical and detail-oriented. We’ve experienced several issues with the “shady” employees providing poor work back or breaking company policy, which is usually hidden in the details of the project. I’ve been unlucky enough to notice the issues and report them back to non-technical management, which resulted in a year+ long trainwreck of a project.

    I’ve noticed that many employees (including my manager) now tune me out in person or ignore or delay responding to my emails. They miss key details like “the meeting you need to be in is at 9 AM tomorrow” or “Task A is in process, Task B is completed, Task C is waiting for your approval”. They’ve just become exhausted listening and I don’t know how to communicate effectively (and with brevity) with employees that have “given up” trying to listen.

    Any suggestions on how to keep people aware of the details they need to manage the project effectively?

    Reply
    1. Siberian

      Hmm, I would probably need more details that you can give, but one thing that comes to mind is that when communicating with very busy people elsewhere in our company, I make my email subject lines quite complete. I will often put “time sensitive” at the beginning, followed by something like “please review by 5 PM” or in your example “meeting is at 9 AM tomorrow.” It makes my request very clear and it also helps them trust that I don’t waste their time. I would also avoid including multiple topics in one email. If you can, just have one topic and one “ask” per message.

      Then of course being clear and brief within the email matters a lot. During periods when I am really swamped with tons of emails and requests, when I get an email that’s really long and isn’t clear and contains multiple different things I need to do, I often just close it back up again and move on to an email that makes more sense. That’s my own problem with anxiety and I’m not proud of it, but I know I’m not the only one who reacts this way.

      Now if your problem is more of a management issue, that’s a hard one. You sound like you’re dealing with a really tough situation. My condolences.

      Reply
      1. The Tired Energizer Bunny

        It’s both in person and in emails. I manage a high work load on many projects that require group work, so I send a lot of emails. People then screen emails because they are tired of emails. I then approach in person since email in ineffective. They tune me out or answer only enough to get me “out of their office”

        I want to remain effective, but many of the projects do not facilitate me “making the call” on my own. I can’t not ask the questions, but am unsure how to “reset” the rut we’ve now entered. It’s not good for the department.

        Reply
    2. Tiger Snake

      As someone working in the same sort of detailed role;
      Start with a max of 5 dot points of “this is the follow up you need to do” – think action items.
      About 5 sentences of background/context/the subject and events that lead up to those action items.

      (In an email) A very clear bold statement of “The following information is FYI only”, or (in person) “Would you like me to send you an email with the rest of the details, for your records?”

      The point here is – and its a thing I also have trouble with – a lot of those details are very important in terms of aligning with policies, meeting client expectations, producing a good product, etc, but are NOT important in terms of ‘managing’ a project. All those details do is bog the project manager down and prevent her from doing her job.
      (This is why an IT project traditionally has a technical lead and a project lead.)

      Reply
      1. The Tired Energizer Bunny

        Our technical lead is non-cooperative and hostile. We get false/misleading information on a regular basis without recourse to resolve the issue.

        I receive the information, vet it, and then advise my management. About 60% of the work we receive is inadequate and I have to explain why it’s wrong.

        An example would be we asked for database documentation that did not previously exist. I requested documentation that “shows the relationships of the tables that would allow us to perform joins for reporting purposes (primary keys, foreign keys, etc.)”.

        They send back a “dependency diagram” that follows no standard conventions and doesn’t show the keys within the tables. Technical lead has worked with databases for years and understands industry standards, but chooses not to provide that documentation.

        Reply
        1. The Tired Energizer Bunny

          I like your advice though. The concept of separating details crucial to success vs. details crucial to management is not one I had considered before.

          Reply
          1. Tiger Snake

            I know; it still throws me for a loop all the time!

            I don’t know whether its applicable for non-IT projects as well, or whether that divide is unique to our industry. Do other industries who do BIG projects tend to have both a:
            – “technical lead / the person who understands tech-talk, and who I should be telling these details to so that they can resolve”; and,
            – “non-technical manager / the person manages people and the project, who just needs to know whether we’ll met out deliverables on time and in budget, and will ask for the information they need when that’s No on their own”

            Reply
    3. Not So NewReader

      Please talk to your manager. This could work into a serious problem for you.

      It seems to me that your root concern is that shoddy work is hidden inside the work itself.

      Is it really an assigned role for you to explain it, or is this something that you have just taken on? Yes, it matters.

      If you have just taken it upon yourself, then stop. If they aren’t going to listen to you there is no point.
      If this is part of your assigned tasks then you need to tell the boss that your help is not being effective and here is why, list reasons.

      Is the problem source one particular person or group of people? Do you see recurring patterns that allow you to believe the root problem causer can be identified? Is there a “political” reason why this person cannot be fired?

      This tuning out that you are seeing, is it truly attributable to the drone of your voice? Or are people just getting overloaded with work? Is there an upper level boss who is pushing everyone to work on something else?

      Do you work with check lists or time lines that summarize where things are at or where sticking points are?

      Reply
      1. The Tired Energizer Bunny

        This has been elevated by myself and other employees and examined by management across organizations within Teapot Co.

        Political reasons prevent reasonable actions. It’s slowly getting better by getting worse (more oversight).

        Backing on whether or not I should be watchdogging the project has varied during its lifetime. This is an unpopular viewpoint, but I would rather ensure that my actions are ethical regardless of the work direction I am given even if it has negative career implications. Teapot auditing is also part of my job. If I see something, I have to say something.

        I think people get tired of the soapbox on big issues they can’t fix due to political reasons, entire workforce restructuring, etc.

        Reply
  36. Not So NewReader

    I grew into one of those adults who did not know when to stop talking. Some of it might have been my age but most of it was just life experience up to that point. (This question should scare you into action.)

    Watch the eyes of the people in the audience or the message recipients.

    If you cannot see their eyes, like with using a phone, pause more often and ask a question more often. People who are offered opportunities to participate are more likely to stay engaged.

    Watch their body language, are they fidgeting? doodling? counting the ceiling tiles?

    If you are answering a question, do a self check. “Am I answering the question that was asked or am I answering the question I THINK they asked?”

    Realize that non-stop talking sends a message or several messages that you probably never, ever intended to be sent. Is that what you want people to know about you or think about you?

    Last. If you really want your message to be absorbed you HAVE to craft the message in a manner that your audience will absorb it. This means you don’t write a message the way you would want a message to be given to you. You think about the recipient and how best to get your points to that person(s).
    Ex. I worked with a numbers person. I mean a Big Time numbers person. If you could explain anything in terms of numbers you would get your point across. So going in and saying “I need x.” Would get you no where. You had to craft your statement. “I have no more x’s. We received in 10k. And have not received any since. I have 5346 units with no x’s. Since we received in enough other materials to make 15k units, we were shorted 5000 pieces on x’s.”
    Done. You’d get your x’s that you needed.

    Reply
    1. Back to the Beginning

      This is correct from beginning to end. Again, I am the decision maker who is usually the audience for the information. Nothing makes me angrier than someone who starts talking and doesn’t pause for me to ask a question — or worse — who, when I ask a question doesn’t answer it directly and immediately. If I have a question that isn’t answered, then all the words you pour on me are white noise — I literally can’t understand what you are saying. As the expert, let ME drive the conversation, answer the question I asked, and give me the information the way I need to get it. Otherwise it is a complete waste of time for both of us.

      Reply
  37. Ruffingit

    My ex was very much like this. I used to say that if I asked what time it was, he’d tell me how the watch works, who built it, where, and on and on. It gets exhausting. So I can sympathize with the OP. You just want the information, not the details sometimes.

    Reply
  38. ilikeaskamanager

    Please coach this employee! you will be doing the employee and their colleagues a favor. I tell people–in general you have 60 seconds to put the most important and relevant information out there. I suggest they end by saying ,” I can give you a lot more detail about this issue if it will be helpful. I am also ready to answer questions.”

    I often encourage them to set their stopwatch and practice a bit so they get used to how long 60 seconds is and how much info they can give in 60 seconds.

    Reply
  39. Elise

    I have the opposite problem sometimes. My boss and I will laugh because I’ll walk into her office and start a conversation in the middle, skipping some of the background information she doesn’t have because she doesn’t live in my head. :)

    Generally, I strike the right balance though. Especially in email, I give as much detail as I think they need and tack on “let me know if you need more detail” at the end. I can’t remember the last time someone took me up on that.

    I work with a lot of former English and History majors due to my industry, but my background is in business/finance. People are generally relieved to get my brief, bullet point type messages as opposed to the flowery novels from my colleagues. I always did love Hemingway’s writing style. ;)

    Reply

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