The Master Communicator Blog

How to speak less and say more

Why do otherwise intelligent, successful people undermine their communications goals by being verbose? Rambling on can be a recipe for confusion. There are simple techniques to help you synthesize information into nuggets that are easy for anyone to understand.
June 14, 2023


Why do otherwise intelligent, successful people sometimes undermine their communications goals by talking too much? Even when the speaker has the best of intentions, rambling on can be a recipe for confusion. 

Three of my clients are challenged by verbosity. Each has a different reason—one is a college professor who lectures all day, another is a motivational salesperson, and the last one is a tech startup founder seeking venture capital. Brevity is the art of getting to the point. It’s in demand. And even those who do a lot of talking for a living can learn.

Being long-winded is a bad habit. Don’t confuse that with having the gift of gab or being highly extroverted. It often comes from a desire to be perceived as exacting and competent. It also comes from a mind unable to synthesize information into nuggets that are easy for anyone to understand.

Knowing how to be economical with words doesn’t come easy. In fact, it takes more time to write a five-minute speech than a 50-minute speech. Yet the payoff is huge.

People are drowning in information and hungry for connection. Digital content, video games and on-demand entertainment 24/7 are taking our brains to a saturation point. Attention spans are shorter than ever. A recent study led by Microsoft Canada on how technology has affected attention span found that since the year 2000, the average attention span of a person dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds.

You must be brief and concise if you want to get the attention of your audience, whether talking one-on-one or in front of hundreds. Get to the purpose right away. Hook them with a short, to-the-point statement. Follow up with details to give your idea depth and dimension.

The average rate of speech is 150 words a minute. But people have the mental capacity for 750 words per minute. That leaves 600 extra words per minute. The excess mental bandwidth is where inattention lives. That’s why brevity is so relevant to the way you think, communicate, and influence others. The more you say, the less they’ll hear.

The 27-9-3 Rule is a little-known but powerful formula to gain discipline in message brevity. It was created by legislators in the Vermont state government years ago. It requires that you write a succinct message of no more than 27 words, delivered in nine seconds, containing no more than three ideas. The structured brevity will help you understand how little you need to connect with your audience, but you must choose wisely. It’s meant to be an appeal that stirs interest in your listeners to learn more and engage with your argument. 

Let’s break it down. 

27 words: 27 words take about 9 seconds to say. You may want to have fewer than 27 to allow for your speaking style and more natural delivery.

Nine seconds: Nine seconds is a sound bite. It’s a poignant snippet of information that is memorable. Politicians and corporate spokespeople are trained to speak in sound bites for maximum persuasive ability. In my workshops, I refer to 7-10 seconds as the timeframe to make an impression. That’s strategic brevity because everyone knows that you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.  

Three points: This refers to the Rule of Threes and the way our brains process information through pattern recognition. Triplets are easier to remember because we’re accustomed to hearing them since childhood in fables and folk tales.

Here is an example of a message in 27-9-3 style:

Climate catastrophes are costly. They’re twice as devastating for Florida’s waterfront.  New building codes can change the fate of the 500,000 residential properties built along the shoreline. 

You can also develop the habit of brevity by:

1.  Not overexplaining. Give people just what they need to know. 

2.  Looking at peoples’ facial expressions and body language to detect when they’ve tuned out from message saturation.

3.  Planning in advance. What is your intention?  What action do you want your listeners to take? Create a mind map or an outline to focus and not stray into verbosity.

Keeping a talk or presentation short and sweet is difficult to do. Self-edit down to what people need to know. Notice their reactions when you speak and look for signs that you may have lost them. Practice the good habit of brevity, and you’ll strengthen your personal and business communications.

Rosemary Ravinal

Business leaders and entrepreneurs who want to elevate their public speaking impact, executive presence, and media interview skills come to me for personalized attention and measurable results. I am recognized as America’s Premier Bilingual Public Speaking Coach after decades as a corporate spokesperson and media personality in the U.S. mainstream, Hispanic and Latin American markets. My company’s services are available for individuals, teams, in-person and online, and in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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