Why You Need to Say Less (and How to Do It)


Is it time to ask for a raise? Discipline your child? Apologize to your partner? In many communication situations, fewer words can pack a greater punch, and deliver your message more effectively.

Let's cut to the chase. Here are six reasons you should learn to say less.

1. Keeps Your Listener (or Reader) Engaged

Tune-out happens at the point of information overload. Think about that colleague you try to avoid at the water cooler because a simple question — "Hey, did you see last night's basketball game?" — can turn into a 10-minute analysis of the last free throw shot. After the first two minutes of nodding your head in agreement, don't you wish they picked up on your nonverbal signals that enough is enough? Before long, you've mentally checked out of the conversation and are thinking about all the things waiting for your attention back at your desk, or your grocery list, or last night's dinner snafu. Don't be that colleague. Conversations are meant to be give-and-take, not monopolies.

The average adult attention span has dropped to 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes a decade ago. The result? We have less time than ever to get our point across — whether through an email, presentation, meeting, blog post, or conversation.

2. Conveys Confidence

When it's time to negotiate a raise, focus on the salient reasons you believe you deserve it. "I've increased sales by 23% over the past year, and my customer retention rate has doubled since I started this job." Stop.

Women, especially, tend to "over-explain," particularly when asking for something. Irrelevant details about how you color-coded your filing system, never complain about working late, or that your landlord just raised your rent will not convince your boss that you deserve a pay increase. In fact, all of the extraneous justifications can sabotage your request by coming across as self-doubt.

3. Doesn't Dilute the Point

Let's say you're pitching a website design to a potential client. A presentation that includes the top three benefits — increased conversions, more ad revenue, better customer engagement — will plant a much stronger seed in your client's mind than a laundry list of advantages that begin to run together and overwhelm. The top three will likely get lost in the muddle.

Tangential stories, long explanations, or unnecessary information all tend to water down your most convincing points. By contrast, succinct messages deliver the strongest impact.

The Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program encourages parents to "say as little as possible" when delivering a consequence for a misbehavior. "Hitting is inappropriate" or "We don't hit" both convey simple but clear messages. Lectures and long explanations not only lead to toddler tune-out, but also dilute the lesson. What works for toddlers works for everyone else, too.

4. Makes Your Apology Sincere

It happens. Whether in the heat of an argument, or through sheer carelessness, we all slip up and say or do things we later regret.

One cardinal rule in delivering a sincere apology is to avoid use of the words "if" or "but." It's the latter that often results when we launch into a diatribe to prove that what we said or did was justified. And it has the effect of rescinding the apology by shifting the blame to the other party, according to psychologist Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. Keep your apology clear and to the point: "I'm sorry that I got so angry last night. I'll try to keep my temper under control and the next time something bothers me, communicate it in a better way." That's it. Done. No need to rehash or finger-point.

5. Activates Your Filter

Your friends' mother was just diagnosed with a serious illness. Think before you speak. Best not to tell her about your neighbor who suffered miserably before dying from this disease. A simple, "I'm so sorry to hear that; I'll keep your mom in my thoughts," is probably a better route.

Simplicity is also best when saying "no." One of the shortest words in the English language, it is also the most difficult for many to utter. "I'm sorry I won't be able to attend the luncheon, but hope to see you soon" is perfectly okay. No need to provide details of your overflowing calendar (your business, not theirs!) or make up an elaborate excuse to soften the "no."

6. Communicates Strength

Nike's "Just Do It" trademark slogan was coined in the 1980s, but thankfully has had more staying power than poufy hairstyles. Its intent was to encourage people of all ages and athletic ability to participate in some type of exercise. No excuses. Just do it. Your short explanations will have the same staying power.

Do you use the power of brevity in your daily interactions? Please tell us about it in comments (at length, if you must).

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