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In Public Speaking, Less is More

“Thursday 6th. 11:00am. Apple headquarters in California. The June sun is piercing the windows of the immaculate board meeting room on the ground floor. 15 executives are militarily arranged on both sides of the elliptic glass table, looking at their phones, in silence, waiting for Tony’s signal. Tony stands up and the 15 heads turn towards him. The show is about to start…

He has hand-written his speech and rehearsed it at home. He doesn’t need notes, he knows his subject, he’s been doing this job for 5 years, has the trust of his boss, Michelle, and he’s ready to roll. He starts talking, with a little hesitation at first but standing tall and making eye contact. It’s a good start but it soon becomes obvious that his knowledge and self-confidence have tricked him into one of the worst mistakes a speaker can make: overload.

He’s going to cover 10 points in the 30 minutes he’s been given to address the executive board; by the time he’s covering the third point it has become worryingly clear that he’s not going to have time to say everything he wants to say; his pace gets faster, his words unclear and 15 minutes into the presentation he’s lost half his audience members who have now turned their attention back to their phones; the other half will follow soon. Tony’s started to sweat, his posture and voice aren’t as confident and his credibility is slipping away; he may know his subject well, he may have prepared thoroughly but he’s failed to apply one of the golden rules of public speaking: Less is More.”

We’re all Tony. And Michelle. And anybody who’s ever spoken in public thinking that the more they say the better their message will come across. For years I’ve seen speakers in meetings, presentations, speeches and conversations who, like Tony, say too much. Why do they do it? Our culture has taught us that the more we say the more knowledgeable and authoritative and credible we will sound. Not saying enough is perceived as a lack of experience or an inability to communicate. Saying a lot provides the speaker with a (false) sense of comfort, safety and satisfaction. And it’s time for all of us to stop doing that.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo da Vinci

By saying less, you can control your message, focus on 1, 2 or a maximum of 3 areas and express yourself with clarity and conviction. You will have experienced situations where by saying too much you find yourself speaking too quickly and end up breathless and incoherent. Covering fewer points will allow you to keep control of your pace, your breathing and your message. Pick one topic and stick to it!

By saying less, you allow your interlocutor to ask questions, engage and feel part of a conversation. This can only make your message more powerful and effective; receiving questions from your audience has the added benefit of giving you time to breathe and think.

By saying less, you also create a desire in the audience (whether one individual in a conversation or hundreds in a presentation or speech) to learn more, to want more and to crave more from you and that can only be a good thing if your goal is to engage, connect and influence. If you say everything you can think of every time you open your mouth you will soon find yourself having nothing new to say! Pace yourself.

“Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean. But it is worth in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains” – Steve Jobs

‘Less’ can be uncomfortable. We have an unconscious need to fill the silences and to keep talking until we run out of oxygen or someone stops us. That’s not a good technique to communicate successfully.

I challenge you to practice ‘Less is More’ every time you’re in a meeting or when you do your next presentation or when you have your next catch-up with a friend. Think of the one thing that matters most to you and to the audience you are addressing and elaborate on it with a maximum of 3 related points. Once you’ve said what you wanted to say, stop! (however brief it may be) and let it sink. We live in a world in which capturing and holding people’s attention is increasingly difficult. If you want to master the skill of public speaking, remember this basic rule: Less is More.

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