Brief teachers beget better learners.
We live in an attention economy, not simply an information age. If you can’t be clear and concise, nobody will listen. It’s too hard — they just tune you out.
Living and learning in this environment is brutal, especially in a fast-paced global market filled with constant change, uncertainty and risk. It’s not enough to extract and share valuable knowledge. People already feel overwhelmed by the information associated with their day-to-day pursuits. Add in their professional lives and it’s not unlike drinking from a fire hose.
A few months ago, I was at a certification workshop, and the instructor was an expert in business strategy. There were a few dozen participants, and we had two days to cover the course material. After the first few hours, most of the participants were begging for a break to check their phones and start chatting with their peers.
The flaw in the design was that the expert was holding court and lecturing a captive audience. But these are the harsh realities we face today:
- Attention spans have dropped from 12 seconds to eight in the past five years.
- Smartphones are everywhere and get checked on average 150 times a day.
- Emails bombard professionals at a rate of 300 a day, with 43 percent of people admitting they ignore them if they’re too long or complex.
- Professionals are interrupted six to seven times an hour, with only 40 percent resuming their previous task.
- Nearly a third of co-workers admit they tune others out in less than 30 seconds if they don’t have a point.
Brevity is an essential skill to be a successful professional in an attention economy, yet few are armed to adapt to the new “less is more” reality. Corporate learning has changed fundamentally under this weight. Learning leaders need tools to adapt, such as storytelling, and they should simplify complexity and package information into small, bite-size packages.
There are five specific steps leaders can take to teach by saying less:
- Take time to prepare. As a famous quote says, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It takes extra time to be succinct. So invest more time on the front end to save others on the tail end who may be suffering from information overload.
- Speak in headlines. Always have a point and serve it up from the beginning like a good journalist. Don’t bury the conclusion at the end; lead with the most important idea from the outset. That catches people’s attention before they can tune out, and holds it longer because they know the point of your idea.
- Embrace visual outlines. A picture is worth a thousand words, and visual outlines or mind maps are powerful, simple ways to draw out hierarchy and define the relationship of ideas. Simply grab a blank piece of paper and sketch an easy-to-follow map to guide and organize people through territory that may otherwise be cluttered, complicated and confusing.
- Know your audience’s needs. Give people the right amount of detail. Determine the right balance of information to avoid starving or overfeeding them. What tires people out is having to hunt for more information when the explanation is too concise or exerting extra energy deleting or ignoring what’s superfluous.
- Listen more, talk less. People love conversations and abhor monologues. Leaders that are brief invite questions and start discussions. And when they’ve hit the point, they stop talking. Successful professionals know when they have filled the glass — there’s no need for it to overflow.
If people fail to be brief, there are immediate consequences: wasted time, longer meetings, deleted emails, delayed decisions, lost job opportunities, stalled presentations and confused stakeholders. Brevity is a non-negotiable standard for professionals and an essential skill today. It requires constant awareness, discipline and decisiveness — this will propel them forward as leaders in an attention economy.
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