(Forbes first published my post here.)
When my husband and I first married, we had an ongoing travel battle. Working in Houston as a consultant, I routinely had to drive to client sites in different parts of the city. And as anyone from Houston knows, traffic can be snarled during the daily commute on any of the major thoroughfares.
When I would ask my husband for a suggested alternate route, his directions often sounded like this:
“Okay, you’re going to be on 610 Loop. You’re going to be approaching I-10 in a couple of miles, so be watching for the exit. You’ll exit to the left, but you’ll end up going west—after you circle around. You’ll see a big conference center there on the right just before you get to the exit. Then you’ll go about 3-4 miles until you come to a side-street off the service road. You need to exit onto the service road before you get to that point or you’ll miss it and have to make a loop to come back to it. There’s really not an exit for Beach Street from I-10. So to be clear, you’ll take the second exit off I-10 to get to that one-way street. There’s an Exxon station on the corner and a WhatABurger just before you get to the Exxon. I think there’s also a day-care center on the corner. If you get to the railroad tracks, you’ve gone too far. And then you’re really going to be messed up because that side-street, Beach, is a one-way.”
By this time, I would be totally tuned out.
When I asked for an alternate route, what I expected and needed was something like this:
You may have heard someone say, “Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. You can’t OVERcommunicate!”
Not true. You can—particularly if you’re trying to explain complex information to a layperson. What the “you can’t overcommunicate” admonition means is to communicate necessary information often and consistently. What it doesn’t mean is to over-explain.
What are the negatives in over-explaining?
Rather than launching into a monologue, start by asking specifically: “What exactly do you need help with?” Or: “What questions do you have about the process?” Or even the generic: “How can I help you?” Their answer will give you laser focus on the most essential information that needs explanation.
People cannot listen well when they’re stressed and overwhelmed with something that sounds too unfamiliar or complex. If the listener is a novice or tension-filled about approaching a project, he or she may not know what questions to ask.
You can help them relax and focus on essentials by suggesting things they may need or want to know. For example, lead into your explanation with phrasing like this:
–“One thing that people frequently ask me is X….” “So my answer to that is Y.”
–“Something that’s typically confusing to clients is X. Would you like me to explain that?”
–“Likely, you’re going to have questions about X because that’s very complex. How can I help you with that?”
–“I really want to focus specifically on what you need to know. Questions? Fire away!”
Too much information can come across as arrogance and “talking down.” To avoid sounding like a walking, talking museum or Wikipedia, leave it to the listener to guide the discussion. For example, offer this: “I can go into a deeper explanation about X if you’d like me to?” Then let the other person say yes or no.
But never phrase your offer like this: “Do you need me to explain X?” Rarely will anyone take you up on such an offer. They fear that they’ll seem ignorant. Or they’ll hesitate to “try your patience” with a request for more detail.
To sum up: To avoid turning your explanation into a lecture rather than a learning experience, encourage discussion. Your phrasing and delivery matter a great deal to clarity and the listener’s confidence.
Learn more ways to communicate technical information to laypeople with Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done