how to help an employee become less long-winded

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. Texts come in 3 or 4 parts as they are so long.

I have given her feedback on being brief, told her to use bullet points, shorten her written work, given her timelines (i.e. “you have 5 minutes to explain,” etc.) but to no avail. After this feedback, she has made very minor attempts to be brief. For instance, she will sometimes ask me to review an email before she sends it, but is pretty adamant about keeping a lot of information in. 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. It really does not go well on conference calls (when it’s hard to pay attention anyway). She is starting to present to leadership, and in our company it’s all about “Be Brief, Be Bright, Be Gone.” 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 on these sorts of issues?

You’re absolutely right that this habit will hold her back professionally; the higher up the ladder she goes and the more she’s in front of higher-level managers, the more important it will become for her to be able to distill a message down its essentials and convey them quickly and concisely. So it’s great that you want to help her with this, because it’s going to impact her career and reputation otherwise.

It’s going to take some coaching though; it’s not going to be one or two quick conversations, because this type of thing is usually a pretty deeply ingrained habit. Assuming the rest of her work is good — and thus it’s worth a short-term investment of your time to help her improve in this area — here’s what I would do:

1. Sit down with her and say that you want to have a serious conversation with her about a work habit. I know you’ve talked with her about this before, but because it didn’t have a lasting impact, it’s time for another conversation, and this one has to feel more serious, so that it’s clear to her that you’re not just making suggestions or giving offhand advice.

Explain to her that conveying information more concisely isn’t just a style preference; it’s a business necessity in most workplaces, and it’s something that you need her to actively work on. Tell her that you’re worried that it’s impacting her professionally and will continue to do so, and that her work is good and deserves to have people pay attention to it, but they won’t if she doesn’t find a way to communicate more concisely. Tell her that you want to see her succeed, and that you want to work with her on this habit so that it doesn’t hold her back.

2. Give her specific guidelines. It’s not enough just to say “keep things shorter,” because her calibration meter in this regard is off. She can’t tell when something is too long. So you need to spell it out much more specifically. For example, you might tell her that no memo should be longer than one page and that they should be primarily written in bullet points, no email should be more than three short paragraphs, presentations should be no longer than X minutes, and she should observe how long others speak at meetings and speak no longer than that herself.

These are obviously rigid guidelines, so acknowledge that and explain that you want her to use them for now, while she adjusts to a new way of conveying information, but that she won’t need to stick to them so rigidly once conciseness has started to be more of a habit. You’re just asking her to use them for now while the two of you are working on this, not forever.

3. Coach her actively on this going forward. For instance, when you assign her a written project, give her a maximum page count at the outset. If she’s concerned that she won’t be able to include all the information she thinks should be included, talk through her thought process. As you hear what she’s worried won’t fit in, explain to her why X is important to include but Y isn’t.

And explain to her — explicitly — that higher level decision makers (and others; modify depending on the audience/context) specifically don’t want all the information. They want high-level conclusions and takeaways, and to be able to trust that that’s been backed up by thought and research before it came to them so that they don’t have to spend their time on that part. 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. Spell out for her that her audience actively doesn’t want this. To some people, this is completely counterintuitive, so you may need to remind her of it more than once.

4. Don’t rely on her picking up on hints, like you asking at the start of the meeting that everyone be brief or being brief yourself as an example. That’s not working, so you’re going to need to be more explicit. For instance, you might say in a meeting, “Jane, could you give us a quick one-minute overview of X?”  Or when it’s just the two of you, “This is a bit more than I need; I trust you to have the details covered without me needing to be in the loop. What are the parts that you need my input on?” (Or “Tell me just what you think is most important.”)  You can also give her time cues at the start of conversations: “We only have 20 minutes and I’m hoping we can cover X, Y, and Z in that time.”

5. And last, make sure to give her feedback along the way, whether it’s “The start to your presentation on the call was great, but I think you started losing people when you started talking about the details of how the new software will work” or ”This memo is a great example of you putting into practice what we talked about, and I love how you conveyed all the high-level information in an easy-to-skim way.”

If you’re willing to invest some time to do all the the above, you should either see a real change in the next few months, or not. If you don’t, then you’ll need to decide how much of an issue this is for her performance. Lack of improvement might mean that she gets fewer/no opportunities to present before senior management, or that she’ll never be your first choice for higher-profile projects, or that it impacts her ability to progress in the organization. Or it might just mean that you’ll have to continue sending projects back to her with instructions to shorten them. Whatever the likely consequences, talk to her about them explicitly so that she’s clear on what the trade-off is that she’s making.

But with a couple months of focused coaching on this, I think you have a good chance of helping her overcome the habit pretty significantly. Good luck!

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