I was coaching a rising star the other day. A professional with amazing ideas, strong leadership abilities, and excellent presentation and storytelling skills. What did she need from me?
“I want to improve my executive presence,” she said.
“What would that look like?” I asked. She talked for awhile and eventually articulated something like this:
“Presenting is no problem for me. Actually, someone recently called me an ‘artful presenter.’ But when I’m a participant in a discussion—not the driver, but a contributor—I feel like I ramble. When I watch great leaders in that same situation, I admire how they can just cut to the chase.”
Ah! Cut to the chase.
Get to the point. Skip all the context and tell me what I need to know. Save us all some time!
Today, cut to the chase is a useful cliché. But it began as a literal direction for the creators of silent films. I imagine a writer toiling over a draft, realizing it’s time to change the scene: “Okay, the characters have had their say (in subtitles and exaggerated body language, of course). The plot is plenty thick. Time for some action. Let’s give the audience what they love: Cut to the chase!”
We’ve all been in meetings where much has been said, many glances exchanged, and the plot is plenty thick. What a gift, in those moments, when someone can cut to the chase.
That’s the role my client wants to play. She wants to be the person in the room who has the good sense to stop the chatter and advance the action. Concisely.
That’s a skill, and it’s one she can master. So can you. Here are three anti-rambling tactics that can help you make a concise, strategic contribution to any conversation.
1. State (or restate) the objective.
The best meeting leaders state the discussion’s purpose upfront. If they don’t, be the person who does. As early as possible in the discussion, call a quick time-out to be sure everyone knows exactly why you’re together. That clarity will help keep everyone on track.
If a conversation does veer off course, interject by repeating that purpose. In a heated, complicated, or deadlocked conversation, your reminder could be a catalyst for progress.
You might also have an objective of your own. This could be a priority that crystallizes in the first moments of a discussion or, better yet, something you considered ahead of time. There’s no rule that says you can’t write down your objective and bring it to a meeting. In fact, maybe there should be a rule that you must.
In advance of a meeting where you want to demonstrate executive presence, write a single, concise sentence that says what you need or want from the discussion. When it’s your turn to speak, pause to look at that statement. It will either inform the words you say or become the words you say.
2. Ask an insightful question.
When you pipe up in business conversations, you want to sound smart and thorough. But what happens when nerves or self-doubt creep in? Your inner voice takes over:
“Oh my god! You missed the most important point.” “You’re losing them. They look confused.” “Did you really just say that?”
To compensate, you over-explain, repeat, and ramble. The longer you talk, the more you dilute your impact. If this rattles your confidence, you may give up talking in meetings altogether. And that’s a career killer.
Don’t hold back. Instead, think of contributing in a different way. Rather than agonizing about what you can state, focus on what you can ask to make the conversation richer.
Some of the best questions begin with “what if …” or “why not …” These questions can be easy, backdoor paths to get your own ideas on the table. Equally valuable is the obvious question that everyone is afraid to ask. Be the brave soul who calls it out.
3. Summarize what you’ve heard.
You know the term “active listening.” Well, here’s good reason to master that skill. You can be that gift of a person who focuses entirely on the conversation (no multi-tasking), follows everyone’s points and logic, and then concisely reports back what you’ve heard. That’s useful!
Mix and match.
Any of these tactics alone can be an effective way to cut to the chase. The more you practice them, the more comfortably you’ll be able to use them. In no time, you’ll also find that you can raise their strategic impact even more by mixing and matching. Summarize what you’ve heard, for instance, then ask where we go from here. Or remind everyone of the meeting’s purpose, then summarize progress.
Choose your moment.
In movies and in meetings, timing is everything. Some films start with quiet dialogue and build to a raucous climax of explosions. Others drop us right into an opening scene of high-speed action. Both can work.
The same is true in meetings. You might let a conversation build for awhile, then interject your objective, question, or summary. This kind of patience is important when you want to honor multiple perspectives, or when a team is meeting specifically to generate a variety of ideas.
Occasionally, though, the right move is to cut to the chase just as the meeting begins. This is wisdom my husband sometimes uses in sales situations. He’s been selling in the food industry for 30 years.
“Instead of building up to the chase,” says Jim, “you might be better off just putting it out there, right from the start. ‘Here’s what I have in mind.’ If they bite, you’ve saved a lot of time. If they don’t, then you can work through your rationale, with everybody’s position clear and in the open.”
Choose your moment, and choose your words. Be the person who can cut to the chase with a brief observation that saves time and generates results. That’s executive presence.