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#sowhoknew: Shut up! Why talking too much can damage your career

“You have two ears and one mouth. You should use them in that ratio”. My old boss, the late (great) Ray Sale often reminded a younger (and considerably more verbose) version of myself of this on a fairly regular basis.

Ray’s sagely advice was brought flooding back to me this week when I saw (and subsequently reposted) a copy of this picture on LinkedIn…

The WAIT (Why Am I Talking?) mnemonic was remarkably resonant with a considerable number of LinkedIn users given the high viewing figures, likes and shares I received for the posting. So I decided to do a little more research into the subject to see whether people agree with me that we simply talk too much in business. And I also pondered if being overly garrulous could be detrimental to our careers. What I discovered was actually quite telling…

I’m not sure where the common convention started but it seems to be quite widely accepted that the people who are the most effusive in meetings or on conference calls are considered to be the most influential. Admit it, as a consequence of this unwritten rule we have all been guilty of saying something just so that our voice is heard irrespective of whether we actually had something vital to say. Mea culpa.

So why should it be that talking in business is more revered than listening? Well if you read the research into the matter, it seems that the notion is actually rather superfluous…

In his book ‘Just Listen’ the author, Dr Mark Goulston, outlines his rather handy Traffic Light Rule. Basically you are on ‘green’ for the first 20 seconds of anything you have to say. Then you need to watch for the classic signs of boredom from the listener (e.g. fidgeting, looking at their phone, eyes glazing over, snoring etc.). If you don’t detect any of these signs then for the next 20 seconds, you are on ‘amber’ – you can continue but be warned that you are pushing your luck. Beyond 40 seconds? You are on ‘red’ – so just stop. The problem though is that most of us have no idea how long 40 seconds actually is when we are gas-bagging. Our ability for time recognition is rendered redundant by the physiological release of dopamine into the brain which provides a natural high and encourages us to continue. Mr Goulston suggests that to combat the urge to be voluble we should practice timing ourselves when talking to ensure that we don’t succumb to the desire to filibuster. His basic advice isn’t rocket science: “You need to talk less and listen more.”

Part of the problem here is that we are simply predisposed to be chatterboxes. Science says that we humans are social animals and as such are hard wired to use communication as a vital tool to thrive and survive. Now this wouldn’t be such a problem, except for the fact that science also tells us that our favourite topic is ourselves. People actually spend around 60 per cent of their time jabbering about themselves (and that figure rises to over 80 per cent on social media). Why? Because of that dopamine rush I mentioned earlier. And it must be a powerful driver – a recent neuroscience study at Harvard University found that individuals were actually willing to pay for the opportunity to disclose information about their lives.

The downside to this propensity to pontificate is that it directly conflicts with our increasingly diminishing attention spans. This phenomenon is caused by the tsunami of information pushed at us each day both verbally and via digital sources. Latest research suggests that our capacity to fully concentrate on what someone else is saying has an upper limit of around 1 minute but can be as low as just 8 seconds.

So what if we ignore all this advice and continue to be a Chatty Cathy or a Blabbing Bob? Well firstly I can’t imagine that anyone wants to be labeled in the office as a windbag, oxygen thief or time pirate. Annie Stevens from coaching firm ClearRock, points out that we have little patience for distractions at work, particularly given that 67 per cent of us are working more hours than we were five years ago.

Consequently, anyone who is excessively loquacious runs the risk of alienating themselves from their colleagues by impinging upon their precious time.The advice from Stevens is elegantly clear: “Be brief, be brilliant, and be gone,”

Peter Bregman in his article ‘If You Want People to Listen, Stop Talking’ published in Harvard Business Review, goes one stage further. He extols the virtue of simply saying nothing at all. In his own words: “Silence is a greatly underestimated source of power. In silence, we can hear not only what is being said, but also what is not being said. In silence, it can be easier to reach the truth”

Over the years, I have made a concerted effort to take on board some of this advice. But there is a note of caution here as there can be downside… the convention to ‘talk more than listen’ still appears to prevail in many industries.

I’ve been quizzed on a few occasions when I haven’t uttered much in a meeting or on a conference call. My response is pretty much always the same. “I’m not talking just for the sake of talking”. It may not always go down too well as a riposte but at least in my minds eye I can see a little wry smile on the face of a certain Mr Sale…wait

Steve Blakeman

Steve Blakeman is the Global Media Lead - Nestlé at Mindshare. Previously, he was the Managing Director - Global Accounts, OMD Europe. Previously, he was the CEO, Asia Pacific – OMD. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). He has also had stints as worked as Managing Partner at Omnicom Media Group owned media agency, PHD where he successfully launched their second office in the UK. He began his career at JWT and has over two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications.