Speak softly, but give good advice

Impress me with succinct, piercing points

by on
in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

It was June 1993. President Clinton was weighing whether to bomb Iraq after it was caught planning to assassinate George Bush. Clinton turned to his advisor, George Stephanopoulos, for advice.

As Stephanopoulos writes in his new book All Too Human, he thought, “OK, George, don’t blow it. Keep it simple. No one ever got in trouble for something they didn’t say.”

Now that’s a smart guy. What he wound up saying (“I don’t think there’s a choice, Mr. President”) struck me as just right: wise with a dash of urgency.

Sift through the muck

When I ask my executives for input, I don’t want to hear them think out loud. I’m not paying them to treat every strategic decision as a time-consuming, tortuous brain teaser. No, I want crisp, clear advice—without any dithering or pontificating.

My smartest lieutenants’ minds work like sifters. They discard all the extraneous stuff and focus on the core issue. They articulate exactly what I need to think about in the fewest words possible. These people are gems. They’re CEOsin- the-making.

Not only is their advice clear, but it’s couched in the right terms. They don’t spell everything out, as in do-this-thendo- that. Instead, they cut to the bone and pose a simple question or deep observation. For example, as I pondered whether to risk a chunk of change on an unproven new technology, one VP said, “You’re going to have to gamble now or later, and this is the safest bet you’re going to get.”

Wimping out

Spineless c.y.a. types have a different advice-giving technique. They waffle for 15 or 20 minutes, making me sit there and hear “both sides” in agonizing detail. Outside consultants are often the worst. They speak in riddles and loops and wind up saying nothing.

What astounds me about these people is their refusal to make a point. I wish I could enroll them in a course that rids them of their fear of straight talk.

Here’s the test: If you give me your best input, I should be able to summarize it in a few sentences, tops. If I’m left wondering what you’re saying or suggesting to me, then I’m going to look elsewhere for trusted counsel.

Substance over style

Just because you pound your fist and raise your voice doesn’t mean your advice is any better. You won’t fool me by draping useless remarks in an overly intense or enthusiastic delivery.

Actually, I find those who carry on the most when they’re giving their advice are often the least sure of themselves. I prefer low-key sages who force me to drop whatever else I’m doing as I strain to pay attention to them.

If you want to make yourself heard, drop your voice an octave or two. Pause first so that no one’s talking over you. And then dazzle everyone with your pearls of wisdom.

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