What’s your point?

Have it ever happened to you that you wanted to report to your boss a great achievement or wanted to present a great idea on a meeting with five other people and you somehow couldn’t get the point across? And the more you tried the more you got into the details that were hard to follow? You tried even harder and after ten minutes long speech you could see that everyone is either bored or confused and your idea didn’t generate the enthusiastic response you expected?

What went wrong? Most likely you tried too hard. You wanted to present too much too fast and by doing it you overloaded your audience with facts, numbers and details they didn’t care about. You drowned the key points under an ocean of irrelevant information. And by irrelevant I mean irrelevant to that particular audience.

Let me give you an example. You are a project manager running software development project. Every week you meet with all the important stakeholders to give a status report. During the week you found out that the project will need two more weeks to complete and as a mitigation strategy you decided to shorten a testing period by a week. You are on a meeting giving your update and you start describing in detail what went wrong, why the problem occurred and the delay could be two weeks but you decided to cut some work to make it a week, you described all the options and why you picked the one in particular. After talking for fifteen minutes you finish your report and one of the stakeholders asks: “So, what does it all mean for the project?” This renders you speechless. You just explained everything, what can you say more?

And then another of the participants says: “Due to underestimating a particular feature we have introduced two weeks delay into the project. As mitigation we will be shortening the test period while keeping the quality. We will still have a week delay from the original plan, something our customers are fine with.” In thirty seconds he described something what took you fifteen minutes and the message was understood by everyone around the table. All the other information you provided were simply not relevant to this audience and were causing more harm than good.

So what can you do to break this habit of over-explaining?

  • Be prepared – have your facts together just in case someone asks, but don’t unnecessarily present all the details when no one cares
  • Keep it simple – understand what is the key message you want to give your audience and put it into couple of bullet points, or simple sentences
  • Don’t answer questions before they are asked – don’t try to guess what questions the audience might have and don’t try to answer them all at the beginning. Just wait for people to ask what really interests them.
  • Don’t justify your decision if no one is questioning them – why to spend five minutes talking about why you decided something if the other people in the room really don’t care and are curious just about the results?
  • Get confidence – how? Well, once again, be prepared. Remember the 6P rule: Perfect Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance

The best test of how good you are at getting your point across is one of the most unpopular conversations you as a manager can have – letting someone go. Over the years I’ve been managing people I had a number of conversations like this and also saw numerous people giving this unpopular message to underperforming team members. The worst one I saw took about twenty minutes and after the meeting the person being fired asked: “OK, so what can I do to improve?” He simply didn’t understand he was just fired!

And even though this is obviously a very stressful and emotional situation for both parties if you follow the rules, keep the message simple, to the point, no long explanations or justifications of the decision and you tell it with empathy and confidence you get the job done and prevent any misunderstandings.

What is your favorite situation when you got yourself into a bad spot by explaining your point in a roundabout way so no one got the message? How did you salvage it?