Were you born a Ramblin’ Man?
By Eddie A. Jones, AAC Consultant
The lyrics of the 1973 hit song by the Allman Brothers Band, “Ramblin’ Man” go something like this:
Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man.
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can.
And when it’s time for leavin’,
I hope you’ll understand -
That I was born a ramblin’ man.
Were you born a ramblin’ man? Tryin’ to get through your presentations the best you can? Well, when this County Lines article is over, I hope you’ll understand why you don’t want to be a ramblin’ man — or woman.
No doubt you have been in a situation where someone’s telling a story, and he goes on for so long you can’t even remember what the story is about. Or you’re in a meeting where someone gets a question, and her response is so long-winded you have no idea what she just said.
Everything you say, and the way you say it, becomes evidence of your competence, or lack of it. Have you ever walked away from a meeting thinking things like: What was I thinking? Why did I run on like that? Or, I can’t believe I didn’t know when to stop talking! It’s not uncommon for people to struggle to be clear, succinct, and direct in their communication.
The symptoms usually sound something like this: “I started talking, and then I kept talking, and then I lost my point, and then I didn’t know what to do so I kept talking and didn’t know how to stop. And then I felt like an idiot.”
We all know that elected officials are called on many times to make presentations on various matters — either during election cycles or in the regular course of an official’s duties. Are you one of those that cannot get to the point?
Why can’t you be more concise? The primary reason is a lack of preparation and practice. You might know the subject like the back of your hand but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to express it clearly and concisely out loud. If you are guilty of making that assumption, you are falling into a trap and a rookie mistake.
I’ve been making county government presentations for over 40 years, and I feel like I know and understand most aspects of county government. Yet, I don’t dare make a scheduled presentation without proper preparation. If I ever reach that point of thinking I don’t need to prepare, I’ll be heading to the house because I won’t be properly doing my job.
In order to be more concise:
Be prepared. Anyone can drone on forever and a day. It takes forethought to be concise and to the point.
Consider your audience. What do they already know? Give them what is necessary for them to do their job effectively. Stick to those points without getting into needless detail.
Think before speaking. Take a breath and consider the main point. State that point, then elaborate if necessary. If you just open your mouth and start talking you’re bound to arrive at confusion.
Be deliberate. Control the pace of your delivery. Take your time and speak in short phrases. It gives you time to consider what you’re about to say, and your listeners time to process what you just said. Don’t talk too fast.
If you want to get your point across, you need to get to the point. Succinct communication requires structure and thought and starts with thinking about what you are planning to communicate, to whom and what your desired outcome is. Succinct — “clearly expressed.”
All of us know that traveling today’s highway and road system can be extremely difficult without some type of GPS. If you take a wrong turn, your navigation system tells you how to get back on track. However, to do that your GPS has to know where you’re going.
Whether you’re traveling or preparing a presentation, without knowing your destination and having a plan you will find yourself going in circles. To avoid rambling when speaking and to elevate your credibility, begin with the end in mind. What is the purpose of your presentation? What do you want your audience to learn?
It’s easier to align your message and talking points when your objectives are clear. Even if you get distracted or veer off course when speaking, you can steer your presentation back on track when you know your destination.
Every presentation should have a “key takeaway.” Your presentation may have multiple points, but what is the talk really about? Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Are you trying to say too much for your audience to understand, remember, and repeat? Your presentation will not have the desired impact if you leave with a confused audience.
Your listening crowd must be able to relate to you as the presenter. Dazzle your audience with your smile and make them laugh with your stories. But your talking points and supporting examples must point back and relate to your core message. If the audience doesn’t understand the point of your presentation, nothing will stick.
Make your message stick by creating a memorable moment. Repeat a catchphrase; use a visual or a signature gesture that stays with your audience. When preparing, always ask yourself, “What do I want my audience to remember after my talk?”
Most of the time Leonardo da Vinci had it right, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
I fully understand the challenge of concise speaking. Concision is hard because many times I have lots of information to convey in a limited time. Most professionals are busy, meaning you must get your point across quickly and efficiently.
Another reason it’s tough to be concise is more psychological: nervousness. The vast majority of people are nervous about public speaking. When you’re nervous, you speak faster and your ideas are more disorganized. A nervous, disorganized speaker will take about four times more words to express what a calm and focused speaker will use.
The good news is that concise speaking is a skill that can be learned and improved. Concise speaking makes a huge difference in the quality of your presentations. To keep from rambling and make your presentation concise you will:
Hone in on the important. If you give your audience too much information you make it too hard for them to know what is most important. But when you speak concisely, they will have an easier time separating the wheat from the chaff or the relevant from the fluff. You can manage their attention and focus better.
Be memorable. It is fundamentally easier to remember a simple message than a complicated one — and one that has been bolstered with humor and examples.
Be persuasive. Concise speaking increases what is called process fluency, or how easy it is for the brain to process a message.
Speak slowly. If your presentation can be expressed in fewer words, you have the freedom to speak more slowly in the same amount of time. Speaking slowly has the added benefit of putting more emphasis and emotional expression on your words.
Be professional and competent. A presenter who needs to take 500 words to say what another can say in 200 words demonstrates a lack of expertise, and a lack of familiarity with their subject-matter. Concision in communication indicates that the speaker has so much familiarity with the topic that they have developed mental shortcuts and patterns to fully understand it. Remember the genius physicist Einstein? He said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
To avoid rambling when you’re nervous about public speaking — or even if you’re not nervous — follow a presentation outline to keep you on task. Developing the outline is not that difficult but developing the presentation based on that outline is more difficult and requires preparation and practice.
Here is a very good presentation outline:
First Talking Point with Supporting Example(s)
Second Talking Point with Supporting Example(s)
Third Talking Point with Supporting Example(s)
Start strong. Making a strong first impression on the audience can leave a lasting memory because you get their attention at the very beginning. And if you don’t get it, then you’ll probably never get it. If you are taking the time to prepare and present, surely you want the audience to have a good impression and remember.
Notice I listed three talking points in the presentation outline. Audiences often remember only up to three talking points and supporting examples. This is the Rule of Three. Remember all those three-point sermons your church minister presents? Yep, the Rule of Three because we have apparently told ourselves that’s all we can remember.
Just like the GPS that requires a destination, we need to know exactly how our presentation will end. Your conclusion should be compelling. It is the climax. And your conclusion should tie back to the beginning — like completing a circle. I teach an adult Sunday School Class and, as you know, I make numerous county government presentations. I always try to make that circle and tie the ending to the beginning, which is the theme or topic being taught or discussed.
A perfect example of what I’m talking about is Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech where he begins and ends with his main theme: freedom. In the beginning of his speech he said, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” Making the full circle and closing the loop, Dr. King concluded with that famous last sentence: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” That is what I call a compelling conclusion.
Your conclusion must remain focused. Remember that your final words in a presentation leave a lasting impression, and you want that last impression to be a good impression. Always end with excellence.
The ability to say much with fewer words is valuable. It takes practice and some experience, but it’s a powerful skill. Being concise enables you to speak with clarity, confidence and gives you credibility. People will seek out, anticipate, and value your contribution.
The next time you find yourself starting to ramble, remember — “Ramblin’ Man was a hit song, but becoming a rambling speaker can drop you to the bottom of the charts almost instantly. And lest I forget, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart said, “To talk well and eloquently is a very great art, but an equally great one is to know the right moment to stop.”