One of my behavioral weaknesses is my tendency to verbally ramble when explaining complex topics. Why does this happen? For me, it comes from either a lack of confidence in my explanation, or uncertainty about the true goal of the conversation. If you find yourself rambling as well, I wanted to share both my introspection, and wise advice from Missy Jackson, Managing Partner of The Vantage Group Inc. My goal in this post is to provide some steps that can help slow down the process of verbal communication, so that we can be more intentional and effective.
If you’re asked to explain something complicated in an interview, you’re typically being evaluated for your level of confidence and deep expertise. If you’re communicating with a teammate, you need to provide genuine value and respect their time through brevity. Where can we start? I have three points to keep in mind the next time you need to explain something.
1. Approach communication with a contract
Less is more…except when it isn’t! If you’re asked a question, or need to explain something, start off by seeking clarity so that everyone has the same expectations. Think through tiered levels of information:
High-level detail - sticking to skeleton frameworks, better when the audience has zero knowledge in the area
Moderate-level detail - your framework is fleshed out with some basic details, better for when the audience has already been introduced to the concept, but is not seeking deep technical breakdowns
Minutia-level detail - Step-by-step details of the how, why, etc. for an audience that needs to implement the concept, and has the ability to follow along
Additionally, give permission to the receiver to ask for more or less detail as you get going. The way you define these levels of detail may not be in alignment with how your receiver defines them. Be open to going deeper or coming up a level or two to meet the needs of those you’re communicating with.
2. Pause before starting
You should always pause before answering questions or explaining something. After you know what level of detail to explain something in, it’s time to organize your thoughts and slow down. It may feel like an eternity in your head, but it may just be a couple seconds in reality.
If you’re not sure what exactly to think about when pausing, consider details you don’t know the answer to. What parts of a concept are you not confident about? What strikes you immediately as something you’ll struggle with explaining? Keep these concepts in mind. The important thing is that you become aware of them before it’s too late.
3. Be honest about unknowns, but have a gameplan
While explaining a topic, if you don’t know the answer to something or you’re not confident with the details, you need to be honest about it. It’s okay to say that you don’t know something, but the worst thing you can do is leave it at that. You need to have a gameplan to showcase your confidence in unknowns. Of course, the more experience you have in a particular space, the less often that this is needed. But having self-awareness of your potential gaps, and owning a gameplan to close these gaps, can be very refreshing.
After acknowledging that you don’t know something to your audience, answer this question: “How would I figure this out?”
To answer this question, below are two sentences that you can finish for your audience. Finishing these appropriately will convey a high level of confidence in unknown situations:
This is what I believe the right thing to do is in this situation - or what my initial gut response is
This is what I’d do to confirm that this is the right thing to do before taking action
Depending on the level of detail the audience desires, your confirmation of a solution can also include how much time something may take, among other metrics. These sentences can help save you from spinning around a “guesstimate” for too long, rather than owning some of the uncertainty and focusing on how you would confidently confirm your approach when you may not be certain yet.
The three points of establishing a contract of expectations, pausing, and sharing gameplans to tackle unknowns are designed to slow everything down in your head so that your communication can be more confident and intentional. I hope that this post has been helpful for you, and that the next time you’re under pressure to answer a question, these points help guide you to an effective, concise explanation.
I wanted to give a special thanks to Missy for taking the time to explain these points for me as I learn to be a better verbal communicator. You can learn more about her and her business here:
Written by David Crawford, Mobile App Developer