Do you under-explain? 3 ways to check whether you’re saying too little

Don’t offer the history of clock-making when asked what time it is, but do provide sufficient detail to inform and enlighten.

Some people over-explain when they speak, loading up details and numbers and explanations into every sentence. But other speakers have the opposite problem, pulling their punches and under-explaining, offering few facts and absolutely no embellishment.

I found myself doing just that when I was first learning to handle media interviews. I’d been a reporter and knew too much about how statements might get taken out of context, so my answers were terse at best. The trainer took me aside and said, “I almost never say this to anyone I’m training, but you need to say more.”

Learning how to balance—not too much, not too little—became my goal. Along the way, I learned a lot about how speakers disadvantage themselves when playing it too close to the vest. Here are three ways you might be cutting off your words to spite your speaking:

  • Your explanation isn’t long enough to be clear. Particularly with technical topics, some detail is needed if you want your audience to follow where you’re leading. That doesn’t necessarily mean more jargon and data, by the way. Some speakers sound dismissive when they don’t take the time to explain. You can catch yourself doing that when you say things like, “As we all know…” Nine times out of 10, we don’t all know, so tell us more.
  • You’re not keeping up your end of the conversation. When you’re answering questions—whether from the audience, your board of directors or a reporter—that “yes” or “no” answer doesn’t help your conversation partner go very far. Instead, you can shape the way the discussion moves just by adding a statement that takes the topic where you want to go. “No, I don’t see that as a problem, but I have found three other areas you should give serious thought to before proceeding,” provides your audience a natural next question and keeps the exchange flowing.
  • You’re less convincing than you want to be. If you’re trying to persuade an audience, you’ve got to move past the curt answer or the data-free sentence to something more concrete and specific. Try this combination: Make your statement, offer some data, then bridge to an anecdotal example. “We’re absolutely committed to completing the project. Eighty percent of the survey data are in hand, and we’re already seeing inquiries about volunteer opportunities once the center is open.” That will do much more than, “Yes, we’re committed to finishing the project.”

Denise Graveline is the president of don’t get caught, a communications consultancy. She also writes The Eloquent Woman blog, where a version of this article originally ran.

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