Don’t be a rambling leader

Communication  Leadership
05 November, 2018

Stop dominating the dialogue. When it comes to holding your listeners’ attention, less is more.

We all complain about people who talk too much, but few of us think we fall in this category.  

If people become restless while you’re still speaking or don’t have much to say when you’ve finished, then you’re probably guilty of rambling. But don’t beat yourself up! The reality is that most people have a tough time being succinct.

So, this week, my message focuses on why we talk too much, the cost of rambling, and how leaders can practice brevity to become sharper, more engaging communicators.

To make matters worse for their listeners, incessant talkers tend to focus on their favourite topic – “I, me, myself”. On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves, driven by the fact that it feels so good. Self-disclosure activates areas of the brain that are associated with pleasure and reward. Neuroscientists at Harvard University found that people were even willing to give up money for the opportunity to reveal personal information!

However, the hard truth is that nobody else finds our self-centred chatter that interesting. At a time when people are bombarded with information at every turn, attention is a scarce commodity. According to a Microsoft study in 2012, our attention span is now a mere 8 seconds – down from 12 seconds at the turn of the millennium. Those who squander this are inevitably disliked and avoided – or even penalised. (Colleagues frequently “forget” to invite ramblers to informal discussions, while clients may specifically request meetings with someone else.)

When it comes to leaders, the tendency to hog airtime is even more problematic. After all, you have a readymade captive audience – your team!

Leaders who dominate every interaction, scarcely giving anyone else a chance to get a word in, lose their team members’ attention and, over time, their esteem. It’s hard to respect someone who loves the sound of their own voice more than anything else.

In her Forbes article, Erika Andersen makes an excellent point about this style of leadership:

I fairly often advise CEOs and other senior leaders not to talk so much, and what I often hear in response is “If I don’t talk, nobody will.” If that’s really accurate (that is, no one speaks up when you’re not talking), what that says to me is that you’ve very effectively trained your folks to wait for you to talk, rather than risking sharing their own opinions.

Endless, one-sided speeches cause your listeners to tune out and start making mental to-do lists, waiting for it be over so they can get back to being productive. Ideal communication, on the other hand, calls for an equal give and take, keeping all parties interested and engaged. With a little planning and the willingness to share talk-time, you can become a more impactful communicator.

For rambling leaders, here are five suggestions to recapture your listeners’ attention:

1. Prep your ideas

Most leaders don’t plan out what they’re going to say at meetings; they just wing it. But when your thoughts are disorganised, so is your speech. Joseph McCormack, author of BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact By Saying Less, recommends outlining your idea on paper before communicating it. Draw a map with the core idea at the centre, surrounded by key supporting points. Using this as a reference will add clarity and help you stay on track.

2. Stop over-explaining

You might think explaining something numerous times or providing every minuscule detail adds value and makes you appear smarter. It doesn’t. It just frustrates the listener, who thinks: “I got it the first time around, why is he explaining it again and again?” So, after the initial explanation, stop and check for understanding: “Is that clear? I’m happy to go over it again.” If the point has been made, move on.

3. Learn to tell a good story

A well-told anecdote can be a powerful tool, whether you’re trying to illustrate a point to your team or connect with new people at a networking event. However, since most of us aren’t born storytellers, we need to work at it. Practice telling concise stories that cover the 5 Ws (where, when, what, who, why) and leave out irrelevant details (it doesn’t matter whether it was 7.20 or 7.25 pm). You could also begin with a great hook to create anticipation, or describe events in the present tense to draw in your listeners or have a clear ending that drives the message home.

4. Talk less, listen more

As every expert tells us, talking isn’t the same as communicating. Communication is a two-way street. As McCormack puts it:

Brevity is about giving someone else a chance to process, participate and respond.

A great way to become a better listener is by practicing W.A.I.T. – Why Am I Talking? If you realise you’ve been going on for a while, quickly ask yourself this question. If you discover you’re talking just for the sake of it, stop – and start listening instead.

5. Change the rules explicitly

So, you’ve realised that you’ve been taking up a disproportionate amount of talk-time – and now you want to make a change. That’s great! However, if you suddenly clam up, without giving any context, your team will be puzzled and hesitant about speaking up. Andersen suggests giving them a heads-up with a simple email, such as:

We’ll be talking about project X during tomorrow’s meeting, and I’d like to hear how you all think it’s going.  If you could come prepared to share your sense of what’s going well and what we could be doing differently, that would be great.

At the meeting, once again invite people to share their input and then stop talking. Remember, it might take a little while for your team to begin voicing their thoughts, so get comfortable with silence – resist the temptation to fill it yourself.

For those on the receiving end of talkative co-workers, here are four quick tips: 

1. Email when possible

With some people, even a simple query can spark a half-hour monologue – which may not even end with an answer! To keep things to the point, ask the question via email instead.

2. Set a time limit

Begin the conversation by mentioning a time constraint. For example, “Hi, I have to be somewhere in ten minutes – but was hoping you might have time for a quick check-in?” This way, the other person knows you’re running on a tight schedule and (hopefully) will make an effort to be succinct.

3. Use body language

If a conversation is running on far longer than you anticipated, use body language to convey that you need to make a move. For example, close your laptop/diary, or start gathering up your papers. If you’re stopping by someone’s desk for a brief chat, remain standing instead of pulling up a seat.

4. Be neutral

In 6 Ways to Prevent Your Colleagues From Dominating the Conversation, Les McKeown advises neutrality to deal with a rambling co-worker:

Painful as it is, the single most important way to effect behavioural change in a blowhard is to maintain a completely neutral response while they’re talking. No rolling your eyes, no folding arms, glancing at your watch or multi-tasking. But no encouragement either – don’t nod, smile, or cock your head to show interest…. Why? Because giving any emotive feedback at all prolongs their endless monologue by validating and feeding the activity. You’re engaging with the blowhard (positively or negatively), and that’s all they need as encouragement to continue.

Once the person has finished talking, McKeown recommends ignoring all the irrelevant portions of their speech and responding only to the core issue. This helps move the dialogue forward and, over time, helps the person realise that they need to keep their contributions to the point.

What has helped you stop yourself (or others) from rambling? Do share your thoughts.


  • Jayant says:

    Hi Vivek, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. ‘ Gravity, Brevity & Consistency’ are key – especially when leaders communicate. A practical tool which should be used more often is a simple ‘preread’.

    The important message is processed before the meeting and the follow-up discussion can be a lot more structured and succinct.

    Take Care,


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