“No” – and Other Amazing Words of Power

Booking photo of Parks

Booking photo of Rosa Parks

The challenge when you’re running a company is to provide context; while short and sweet is great, most of the time it falls flat without some background when you’re laying out direction and mission.

CEO’s know most of the stuff in their heads. They live with the challenges, direction, obstacles, and enablers all the time. I’m sometimes surprised that CEO’s don’t set plates for those things at Thanksgiving as honored guests. People working for them may not – which is why context is so important.

The problem when you’re climbing that ladder to the top is the opposite. The desire, particularly in verbal communication, can be to explain it all, and in doing so people can sabotage themselves and undermine their effectiveness.

This post talks you through that point, identifies why telling more when you’re talking is sometimes really unhelpful, and gives you some other options.

The challenge when you’re trying to convince seniors is that many people – more women than men in my experience coaching executives – tend to to overcompensate by overselling. We know from research that women manage differently (a 80% take it with a grain of salt generalization). Sheryl Sandberg’s excellent TED talkWhy We Have Too Few Women Leaders – highlights the issue of women hanging back. My observation is similar but from a different angle – instead of 3-5 key shots, people who are junior tend to try to cram in 6-8 points as if more is worth more.

It’s not.

Senior execs get a “bullshit” detector (if they don’t already have one) as a perk when they move to the C suite and it goes off when they think someone is trying too hard to sell? How do they know? They don’t – but the bullshit detector gets suspicious so when a supplicant talks to long and goes on and on.

The other issue with overselling by too much information is that it gives more stuff to gun down. Three really good points or 7 mostly good lines?Senior execs will go with the former, people on the way up the ladder will more often go with 7. The problem? Discovering a weakness in any of the seven begs the question – and creates the suspicion – that there might be faulty.

The key for anyone on their way up is to distill down what you want to express in a direct, straightforward manner. There is elegance and power (paging Apple, Inc.) in simplicity and the same approach works in verbal communication. It particularly works well in the land of overtalk because the approach stands out for its stark simplicity, and its power of distilled thought.

When Rosa Parks was asked to vacate her seat on the bus to accommodate a white patron, she said one word, “No.” It got her a trip to jail (booking photo above) and that one no ignited a movement that ended in the formal destruction of Jim Crow segregation laws across the nation, and decades later still serves as inspiration for civil rights for millions.

Two reminders. People at the very top should provide more context if they want to empower folks to be more effective. People on the way up should be conscious of undercutting themselves by overselling – too much information particularly of the verbal nature – rather than succinctly distilling your communication into a few points.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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