“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw
I was quite excited, as an important interview was under way. I had been enmeshed in a challenging, senior-level in-house search. A rather unique set of requirements made candidate identification extraordinarily difficult. The seemingly perfect candidate, who remarkably checked all the boxes, was sitting across from me and, after some initial banter, had started to answer my first question. The lawyer presented well, projected as a good and decent person, and visions of being close to wrapping up this search danced in my head.
Unfortunately, those visions evaporated quicker than a raindrop in the desert as the candidate droned on, and on, and on — I may have had a better chance of stopping a runaway train. I offered some nonverbal clues, such as fidgeting in my seat and drumming my fingers, and politely tried to interject a comment or two, but it was to no avail. The candidate continued to prattle on and killed his candidacy. I knew that senior management of our client, which was a fast-paced company, would instantly reject this lawyer due to the lack of a cultural fit.
We have all been in similar situations, as someone we wanted to like and who seemingly had it all, lost us by not getting to the point. This often occurs during in-person meetings but also frequently surfaces in presentations and in written materials that seem to approach War and Peace length. How can lawyers, who, as a group, are so very bright, make such a crippling and fundamental mistake?
Two primary reasons seem to explain this phenomenon. The first is that lawyers, throughout their education, and during the practice of law, take great pride in being thorough. After all, not missing something can be a badge of honor and an important differentiator between those who are good and great. As a result, some have a propensity for wanting to regurgitate all that they know, as it is a way of demonstrating how thorough and knowledgeable they are. Subconsciously, they know that such behavior has normally been rewarded and thus do it again.
Second, intelligence takes multiple forms and is not limited to the native brainpower that seemingly all lawyers possess. Cultural and emotional intelligence are not always packaged with book smarts. In the case of this interview, while the candidate was unquestionably quite bright, he was missing the cultural “gene” that should have enabled him to pick up on the social clues I was giving him. He was trapped in his own world and couldn’t see what was happening just a few feet in front of him.
The business world today is one where all of us are being asked to squeeze more into our days. It took a while, but the 1984 envisioned by George Orwell is finally here, as our phones, GPS and other technology not only track our every move, but are constantly demanding our attention. Consequently, the need to get to the point has become especially important today. At the risk of being harsh, we are approaching a stage, if we’re not there already, where failing to be more focused in business settings demonstrates a lack of respect for those with whom you meet. We can wax rhapsodically in other settings, but in business, there is a premium placed on getting down to essentials.
In stating this point, I am not intimating that there is no place for developing rapport and initially engaging in some non-business chitchat. That remains essential and is emblematic of the cultural and emotional intelligence characteristics that drive success. When the moment arises, though, to get into it — no matter the forum — do it.
I have several suggestions for situations in which you are leading a meeting, making a presentation, writing a memo, or otherwise are in control. First, be prepared, as the better that you know the subject matter, the easier it is to distill the information to the most salient points. In some cases, those who endlessly blather on are speaking gobbledygook to cover their lack of knowledge. Second, resist the tendency to want to repeat all that you learned. We did this as children, as it was a way of showing that we studied the material — those days have long passed. Third, state or define your objective at the outset and lay out where you are going and how much time is allotted. This will keep you, and your audience, on the same path.
Fourth, get into the meat of your discussion early and speak (or write) clearly. Too much buildup and pretense loses listeners. Fifth, capture attention by saying or writing something memorable. If you have a hook, use it, as it will keep others engaged. Finally, wrap things up and reinforce your main points, as that will help others remember them long after you are finished.
Things are a bit trickier when you are not in control and are responding to questions. I have five recommendations that should enable you to be more focused and to the point in such situations.
First, do your very best to be an exceptional listener. The more that you absorb what is being said, the easier it will be to offer a responsive and to-the-point comment. This requires you to be an active listener who is fully engaged in what you are hearing (and is not distracted by external stimuli). Second, our brains can operate at warp speed, so tap into those capabilities. It may only take a second or two, but frame your thoughts before you respond. Some have a penchant for jumping right in without having thought about where they are going — don’t fall prey to that tendency.
Third, during in-person meetings, maintain eye contact, as it keeps others locked in to what you are saying. This will help to prevent others from looking at their cellphones or other devices, which can take you off course when you see them engaging in that behavior. Fourth, if you inject some life into what you say and try to be memorable, it can have the added impact of keeping the discussion on pace. You can often illustrate several points in a short story that otherwise would take much more time to lay out in a more typical, and boring, discussion.
Finally, pay attention to body language in the room. If others are looking away or are engaging in the type of actions that I did, as described above, they are sure signs that you are losing your audience. You likely are off track and need to immediately reel them back in, which you can do by getting to the point and injecting some life into your speech.
If you happen to be in a one-on-one or small group session with the runaway talker, there are a few things you can try, apart from the limited repertoire that failed me. First, while you don’t want to be rude, you have to make every effort to slip in an interjection to at least momentarily put the brakes on that train. Offering a comment such as “that was very helpful information, but I’d like to direct us to [your next topic]” often works. In a similar vein, you can also let the loquacious one know how much time is left and the number of questions or issues that need to be covered. This can be especially effective with achievement-driven people, like lawyers, who may see it as a challenge to now attempt to cover those points in the time that remains.
In keeping with the topic this month, that is all — good luck.
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.