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Being Concise: Using Your Head to Think on Your Feet

By Judy West, Principal
English That Works, Inc.

A skilled communicator delivers a concise message that is clear and targeted to the audience. Whether you are making a point, responding to a question, or just stopping by someone's office for a quick conversation, your ability to organize your thoughts and deliver them succinctly adds to your credibility and professionalism.

There are many occasions where it is important to be brief and focused:

  • Participating in a meeting or teleconference
  • Selling an idea or product
  • Summarizing a meeting or an issue
  • Handling the Q & A session of a presentation
  • Dealing with a potentially difficult situation
  • Discussing your performance
  • Speaking on the phone
  • Writing a status report or a business email
  • Interviewing
  • Attending a networking event

In speaking events that you can plan, it is often easier to be concise than when you are called upon to "think on your feet" or "talk off the top of your head." Much has been written about this impromptu style of speaking—speech without any preparation or planning. Suggestions on how to speak concisely can be divided into three categories: Before the Event; Once You Have Been Asked; and After You Have Spoken.

Before the Event

  1. Consider your audience. What do you know about their needs or opinions?
  2. Predict questions that may arise: those for which you know and don't the answers; those that may make you uncomfortable.
  3. Practice your responses, so you will answer questions in a brief and natural sounding way.
  4. Know what points or arguments you must make to get your message across.

Once You Have Been Asked or Have Established Your Desire to Speak

Here are some techniques to organize your thoughts:

  1. Listen to the question and repeat, paraphrase, or clarify it to narrow its scope.
  2. Pause before you respond. Ask for more time if you need it.
    • "If you'll just give me a moment to collect my thoughts"
    • "I want to give you a thorough response, so I'll need a moment."
  3. Observe the body language and intonation of the questioner. This may help signal if the question is friendly or one meant to challenge you or your assumptions.
  4. Establish the point you will make.
  5. Focus on "need to know" information. "Nice to know" information can be included in your response to follow-up questions.
  6. Respond/ organize your thoughts in one of the following ways:
    • State your point and support it in one or two sentences
    • Organize your response as you would a presentation: Introduction, Body, and Conclusion.
    • Answer "Yes" or "No" and why.
    • Use chronology: Past, Present, and Future.
    • State the "Pros" and "Cons."
    • Cite a statistic, make an analogy, or tell an anecdote.
  7. Make sure to use transition or signal words or phrases: "First," "For example," "There are three reasons," "Finally."

After You Have Spoken

  1. Stop
  2. Tolerate silence.
  3. Observe the body language of your audience/listener.
  4. If necessary, ask, "Have I answered your question?"

To Practice Being Concise

  • Answer a question: "What is the most challenging aspect of your job?"
  • Summarize an article, a meeting, or a vacation.
  • Formulate a request.
  • Describe a problem or result.
  • Explain the benefit of a product.
  • Discuss your performance
  • Take a stand on an issue

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