By Tim Hayes
The classic film “Forrest Gump” features a funny scene where one portion of the student body at the University of Alabama holds up placards in the stands that read “RUN FORREST RUN” as the dim-witted but fleet-footed Gump rumbles downfield to score a touchdown, while the placards of another student section facing the end zone read “STOP” to make sure he doesn’t run straight out of the stadium.
I find that scene funny because there are times I wish I had some “STOP” placards in my briefcase when people really just need to cease talking and sit down. And the list starts with me, some 25 years ago.
My first job in public relations came as an assistant spokesperson for a district of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. After a public meeting about a new highway interchange, I was interviewed by the local TV stations.
“Answer the question, then stop talking,” my boss had advised me earlier. But when you’re 24 years old, inexperienced, nervous, staring down the barrel of a video camera, and eager to be helpful, that advice somehow gets filed in the wrong drawer in your brain. Oh, I answered the questions all right, along with sharing lots of un-asked-for-but-eagerly-recorded thoughts about the project, the quality of comments received at the meeting, and more.
The next morning I showed up for work looking like a puppy that got into the garbage can and had strewn refuse all over the house. I just didn’t know when to shut up. It’s an affliction that touches millions daily in all walks of life, but I’m most interested when it strikes people who ought to know better.
Motivational speakers who have so many good stories, yet feel compelled to tell them all. Preachers who have the gift of stringing together inspiring words, yet never seem to run out of string. Elected officials who deal with weighty issues every day, yet assume that we’re as interested as they are. Business leaders who know all there is to know about their company, yet can’t stop themselves from expounding on things they don’t know as well.
Here’s the concept in a nutshell: Think about what you’re trying to communicate. Get it all down on paper. Organize it into a logical flow. State your main point then cite supporting information until that same point becomes as clear as possible. Edit it down. Then edit it down again. Then think some more and edit it down again.
What you’re left with is a well-reasoned document that should convey your message with a clarity and crispness that’s easy to understand. It provides the basis for effective verbal communication, as well, whether in a formal presentation or in handling interviews.
Today when I speak to groups, the first thing I say is, “As the speaker, it’s my job to speak. As the audience, it’s your job to listen. I will do my best to finish my job before you finish yours.” That usually does the trick, keeping me honest and forcing me to be as succinct as possible while never shortchanging the audience’s expectations or their due.
In other words, you have to know when to stop, Forrest, stop.
Copyright 2009 Tim Hayes Consulting