Brevity is a communication virtue because it increases the chance of your message being heard and understood. The best way to be brief is to state your point up front and then add detail as necessary.
In this increasingly distracted world, people just won’t take the time to listen for very long to what you have to say, so it’s important to get your message across succinctly and efficiently. Make sure that if they tune out, they have at least heard the main point.
Think about a newspaper article. The headline tells you the main point, so that if you’re too busy to read the article, at least you have a general idea of what happened. Next, you read the first paragraph, which tells you the “who, what, where, when, how and why”. Journalists call this the inverted pyramid technique, in which the critical information is at the top of the pyramid and the least significant details at the bottom.
Besides ensuring that your main point will be heard, brevity will make it easier to understand. The mental discipline that you go through to figure out your main point can only help to clarify your message. This is why busy leaders like Churchill and Reagan insisted that any issues presented to them had to be contained on one sheet of paper. Think about it: Should we invade France in 1943 or 1944? Negotiate with this fellow Gorbachev? One sheet of paper.
 In my classes, I’ve often told the story that the inverted pyramid was invented by America journalists during the Civil War who feared the lines could be cut at any time. Sadly, in researching this article I have just discovered it’s a myth. I say sadly, because it’s a good story and it allows me to compare your listener’s attention to telegraph wires that can be cut at any time.
A common theme among most presentation books and blogs is the importance of having and displaying passion for your topic. We’re told that passion excites and engages audiences and furnishes you with the fire to be strong and credible. And they’re mostly right: when you’re trying to instill a vision, motivate your listeners or inspire them to act on their beliefs, your passion may be the crucial ingredient that makes the difference.
But everything good comes with a cost, and too much passion can damage your credibility and effectiveness, especially for certain types of business presentations, for example when you’re trying to get a proposal approved internally, or selling a complex business solution to a key customer.
I generally try to post new articles on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but as of last night I had no clue what I was going to write about today. That quandary was resolved when I woke up about 5:30 after a series of very vivid dreams with a clear idea for today’s topic, in fact for a series of topics. My dream actually involved sharks, and my reluctance to dive into murky water to retrieve something I had lost because I suspected they were waiting to snack on my bony body.
I think the reason I woke up convinced that it was time to write about pathos is that the dream reminded me how reluctant we sometimes can be to dive beneath the surface of logic and explore the sometimes dangerous passions, feelings and sentiments that lurk below.
I’d like to close this series on confident speaking by addressing a related topic that is getting a lot of attention.
In the wake of the tragic Arizona shootings earlier this month, our airwaves and news media have been saturated with calls for increased civility in American political discourse, and tonight we’ll probably see at least a pretense of it among the audience when the President delivers his State of the Union Address to Congress.
It’s a natural reaction: senseless acts force us to grope to make sense of them. Add this natural human tendency to a crowded, copy-cat media ecosystem constantly trying to force its way into our shrinking attention spans, and the explanation-du-jour will get its 15 minutes of fame, regardless of its merits.
There are two lines to this argument: incivility is wrong and there’s more of it now than at any other time in history. This post won’t follow either of these lines of argument. First, because I believe that being nasty to people generally is wrong, and that you don’t need another sermon on the subject. As to the second point, maybe we have become a nation of a__holes and boors, maybe not. I don’t think it can be answered because there’s no valid way to measure it and because the current media spotlight distorts serious consideration of the issue. (e.g. Just weeks before 9/11, Time magazine’s cover proclaimed “Summer of the Shark”.)
In this article, I’m going to follow a different line. Let’s instead focus on the practical pros and cons of civility in the workplace.
Pros: Does it work?
Civility in the workplace is good for the organization and good for you as a persuader. It’s good for the organization because it means that healthy disagreement can flourish. Healthy disagreement is that which sparks new ideas, and makes it safe for people to express them even when they’re not fully formed. If people are too concerned about being attacked for their ideas, they will censor themselves, and abort potentially good suggestions before they see the light of day.
Incivility is like the sand in the gears of discussion. It shuts down divergent thinking. It also causes people to wall themselves off into heavily-defended islands of opinion that won’t even consider the merits of another’s position.
Civility is also good for you personally because if others like you even when you disagree, they are more apt to do what you want. It puts into play two of Cialdini’s big six influence factors: likability and reciprocity.
Ronald Reagan’s reputation as the Great Communicator owed a lot to his likability—even his enemies liked him, and were willing to at least talk. People prefer to do things for people they like, and there are more apt to want to spend time with them, and face-time has also been shown to increase personal influence.
Being nice to others also invokes reciprocity; treating others well is a gift that they are apt to return. It’s also probably healthier for you in the long run. That’s only a guess on my part, but it’s a gamble I’m willing to take.
Cons: Are there downsides?
Disagreement is fundamental to the evolution of good ideas. Although they were wrong when they applied it to history, the Marxists were right in their idea that thesis plus anti-thesis could lead to synthesis. If everyone in the organization is too worried about offending others, ideas won’t be properly tested.
On a personal level, one of the downsides to adhering strictly to civility is that it’s like unilateral disarmament. If you become too concerned with getting along with everyone, you may shy away from conflict. Do this for too long and the bad guys will win. You’ve got to defend your position aggressively without attacking others personally, especially when they’re not playing by your rules.
How do you maintain civility when you’re being attacked?
On balance, I’d say the pros win, so let’s look at some keys to holding up your end and contributing to civility.
Have good arguments. I believe that ad hominem attacks are the lowest form of argument, and that is why there is so much incivility. People who don’t take the time to examine and understand their own positions, or don’t have the ability to string together a coherent argument in defense of their point of view, will get frustrated and lash out. Know your stuff, be able to defend it. Stick to the facts as much as possible, because facts are neutral.
Don’t take it personally. If your counterpart seems to be attacking you personally, it may be because they don’t have the capacity to come up with any better arguments. They’re really frustrated with themselves, not with you. As you get to know who these people are, don’t let them push your hot buttons and drag you into an argument. It’s like wrestling with a pig—the pig enjoys it and there’s no way you’re going to come out of it clean.
Consider the context. In their book Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe remind us that wisdom and good judgment come from a willingness to consider the specific situation and adjust accordingly. Rather than reacting to others’ attacks, consider the circumstances which have caused them to take that particular position and to act the way they are acting. This does not mean you have to tolerate boorish behavior, but it might give you enough insight to respond effectively.
Remember, it may be a dog-eat-dog world, but you should still strive to wag more and bark less!