“I’m not sure,” answered the woman. “I arrived five minutes early for my appointment. You took me right away. You spent a lot of time with me. I understood every word of your instructions. I can even read your prescription. Are you a real doctor?”
In certain situations, you don’t expect others to be clear, concise, and quick. In others you do. Anytime you’re getting ready to hear someone speak, if it takes him a long time to get to the point, you know you’re in trouble.
Winston Churchill once said about a colleague, “He is one of those orators who, before he gets up, does not know what he is going to say; when he is speaking, does not know what he is saying; and when he has sat down, doesn’t know what he has said.” What an indictment. I’ve listened to a few communicators like that. Haven’t you? Sadly, I have also been one of them!
All good communicators get to the point before their listeners start asking, “What’s the point?” To do that, one must start out already knowing what the point is. Greek playwright Euripides observed, “A bad beginning makes a bad ending.” Obviously, the time to start thinking about the reason for your communication is before you begin to speak.
All good communicators get to the point before their listeners start asking, “What’s the point?”
Whenever I am preparing to communicate with others, whether to an audience of hundreds or with a single person, I ask myself two questions: “What do I want them to know?” and “What do I want them to do?” If I have clear answers to these two questions, then I am much more likely to stay on track, get to the point, and connect with my listeners.
Perhaps one of the most difficult scenarios for communication is when you have to confront another person. Because of the leader- ship responsibilities I’ve had in my career, I have often needed to confront people. Early on, I was insecure and intimidated by such encounters. Too often my strategy was to either talk about a lot of other things first before sharing the bad news, or I’d hint at the problem instead of stating it clearly. It took me many years to take a more direct approach and say what I needed to as quickly as possible.
Tom Arington, the founder and CEO of Prasco Pharmaceutical Company, and I had dinner last year in Cincinnati. We talked about a lot of interesting things that night, including the tough calls that leaders must often make. During our discussion, he shared with me one of his strategies for confronting an employee who isn’t being successful. He said, “When I have someone in my company who is not doing well, I ask them two questions: first I ask, ‘Do you want to keep your job?’ That lets them know there is a problem. Second, ‘Do you want me to help you?’ That lets them know I am willing to help them.” Now, that’s getting straight to the point.
Honestly, I think most people would rather others get to the point with them. They prefer the direct approach, especially in a difficult situation. And that reminds me of a humorous story about an employee who found himself in a tight spot. His name was Sam. Everybody except him at the small company where he worked had signed up for a new pension plan in which employees would be required to contribute a small amount every pay period, but the company would pay all other amounts and fees. There was just one catch: the plan would be implemented only if there was 100 percent employee participation.
People tried everything to convince Sam to sign up. His fellow workers alternately pleaded with him and chided him. His boss tried to persuade him, but Sam wouldn’t budge. He didn’t want to reduce his paycheck by a single cent.
Finally the company president called Sam to his office and said, “Sam, here’s a copy of the new pension plan, and here’s a pen. You can sign the papers, or you can start looking for a new job because you’re fired.”
Sam signed the papers without hesitation.
“Now,” said the president, “why couldn’t you have signed them before?”
“Well, sir,” replied Sam, “nobody explained it to me before quite so clearly.”
Everyone likes clarity. Even people who are not bottom-line thinkers want to know the bottom line. Good communicators give it to them. Of course, there are times when people communicate in such a way that they purposely obscure their meaning. Nowhere does that seem to happen more than when supervisors are asked for a recommendation by a bad employee. When the person asking for the recommendation isn’t someone they want to endorse, their responses can be very creative. Here are a few, along with their “real” meanings, selected for the book, Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (L.I.A.R.) by Robert Thornton:
Maxwell, J. C. (2010). Everyone communicates, few connect: what the most effective people do differently. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.