We’ve all been on the receiving end of long and convoluted explanations. We ask someone a simple question and get a dissertation in response. When it happens, we get impatient, interrupt, look for a graceful way out, while the oblivious talker merrily keeps right on going. We often leave those conversations feeling like we know less than we did when we began.
This situation is far too common when experts on a particular topic explain things to others. A lot of explanations proceed like a sailboat against the wind; they tack back and forth and take a long time to reach their destination; “on the one hand, on the other hand…”
It’s bad enough to have to listen to those who talk too much, but what if you are the one on the transmitting end of those explanations?
Why it’s a problem
Short memory and attention spans. Attention spans are shorter than ever, so it’s important to get your point in as quickly as possible. Since they won’t remember every detail you told them, don’t bury your main point in interesting but irrelevant detail. It’s especially important as you talk to higher-ranking executives.
It erodes your credibility. When you talk too much, you appear insecure and unsure of yourself and your position. Most people believe, like Einstein, that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. That may not always be true, but that is the impression they get when you over-explain. Concise explanations convey confidence.
Talking past the close. When you’re trying to sell others, they generally listen until they’ve heard enough to make a decision. If you keep talking after they’ve decided to accept your idea, you run the risk of giving them a reason to change their minds.
Loss of influence. Over time, people will stop coming to you for information if it takes them too long. They’ll stop asking for your input at meetings; they’ll turn and go the other way when they see you coming down the hall.
You’ve learned about the topic from the ground up, so you think that’s the best way to “teach” it.
You may be more concerned about seeming smart than about the needs of the questioner. Short, simple answers don’t show how much work it took to arrive at the conclusion.
You’re passionate about the topic, and you overestimate the interest that others take in it.
Because you know so much about the topic, small differences that are inconsequential to the questioner seem major to you.
You’re not prepared. When you hear a question for the first time, your answer is always going to be a rough draft. As any writer knows, the first version that comes out of your head can always be improved.
Know your audience. If you know why they want to know, you can tailor your explanation to fit. It does not hurt to simply ask them why they want to know, or ask them a question or two to gauge their level of familiarity with the topic.
Prepare for conversations. This is related to knowing your audience, but also takes into account the specific topic and their relationship to it. Why do they care? What concerns or questions are they likely to have? What do they need to know to make the decision? If you’re giving a presentation, rehearsal helps you shave away unnecessary detail. For example, you’ve probably noticed that when you tell a story several times, it tends to get shorter.
Listen carefully. It’s hard to give just the right amount of information if you didn’t fully hear or understand the question. Give the other person your full focus. Even when speaking, you want to keep an eye on their reactions. It may not be as obvious as looking at their watch, but you can generally tell when you’re giving them more than they need.
Think briefly before opening your mouth. You’re not on a game show, where you have to answer as quickly as possible. Because you can think much faster than you can talk, even a very brief pause can help you compose your thoughts and formulate a shorter and better explanation.
Start with the headline. Make your explanations like a newspaper article. Give them the gist of the entire story in your opening statement, and then drill deeper as needed or asked. For example, if they ask you, “Will it work?” you don’t begin by saying, “Well that’s a complicated issue. There are a lot of factors that go into an accurate answer to that question, depending on the situation…”
Instead, you can say, “In most cases, the answer is yes (or no), although there are certain factors which might affect that.” By putting out qualifiers like in most cases, you signal to the other person that there are nuances they might want to explore further, but the choice is theirs.
Go for quality over quantity. As Churchill said, you should treat your facts like cigars: Choose only the strongest and the finest. One strong reason to do something is better than one strong reason plus three weaker reasons. You can keep the weaker reasons in reserve, and send them in only if needed.
Be as precise as necessary, but not more so. It’s better to be roughly right than precisely ignored.
 Is there ever a time for long explanations? Of course: when the other person asks for it, or when they are about to make a decision based on dangerously incomplete information. The first one is easy, the second is a judgment call you need to make.