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Weekly 3: Stop talking so much


Idea Journal Weekly 3

August 23 · Issue #153 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Too much talking can muddle your message and even make you appear weak. In a group context, it gets in the way of actual work.
(~5 min read)

#1. If you have nothing to say, say nothing
Author Rolf Dobeli writes in The Art of Thinking Clearly that we’re all susceptible to the “twaddle tendency”: using a lot of words to disguise lazy thinking or underdeveloped ideas.
And the more eloquent the haze of words, the more we fall for them. 
Dobelli argues that academics are especially prone to the twaddle tendency.
Here’s an example from philosopher Jurgen Habermas’s book Between Facts and Norms:
“There is certainly no necessity that this increasingly reflexive transmission of cultural traditions be associated with subject-centered reason and future-oriented historical consciousness. To the extent that we become aware of the inter-subjective constitution of freedom, the possessive-individualist illusion of autonomy as self-ownership disintegrates.”
Dobelli admits that he too has fallen for the twaddle tendency.
When Dobelli was younger, he was fascinated with the philosopher Jacques Derrida. He read all of Derrida’s books, “but even after intense reflection I still couldn’t understand much.”
Derrida’s writings took on a mysterious aura. Dobelli was so inspired by this aura that he wrote his dissertation on philosophy. 
Dobelli realized later that both Derrida’s writings and his own dissertation were “tomes of useless chatter.”
But academics aren’t the only offenders of the twaddle tendency.
The worse off a company is, the greater the talk of the CEO. All the extra chatter leads to more words and hyperactivity designed to mask hardship.
Dobelli notes that former GE CEO Jack Welch was a welcome exception. 
Here’s Welch describing the twaddle tendency during an interview: “You would not believe how difficult it is to be simple and clear. People are afraid that they may be seen as a simpleton. In reality, the opposite is true.”
As Dobelli puts it: “Simplicity is the zenith of a long, arduous journey, not the starting point.“
#2. Once the words are spoken, you can't take them back
Author Robert Greene writes in The 48 Laws of Power that when you’re trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common, familiar, and insecure you appear.
As Greene points out, “Power is in many ways a game of appearances, and when you say less than necessary, you inevitably appear greater and more powerful than you are.”
There are several reasons for this:
  • The less you say, the less likely you are to say something foolish.
  • The less you say, the more mysterious and interesting you become to others.
  • The less you say, the more other people talk; the more other people talk, the more you learn about them and their desires and motivations.
  • The less you say, the less other people know about you, making it easier to surprise them.
In an interview on the Learning Leader podcast, Greene recommends 2 everyday applications of this principle:
  1. The next time you’re in a meeting or conversation, think to yourself: I’m not going to talk as much this time. With practice, over time you’ll develop a greater ability to listen and to “step back from the moment.”
  2. When you receive an email or message that upsets you, don’t respond immediately. If possible, wait a day.
#3. Excessive communication can hurt your team
Author and researcher Josh Kaufman writes in The Personal MBA that “too much time spent in communication and coordination can kill a team’s effectiveness.”
Kaufman describes “communication overhead” as the proportion of time you spend communicating with members of your team instead of getting actual work done.
Communication is necessary to keep everyone on the same page. And the more people you have to work with, the more you have to communicate with them. 
As the number of people on your team grows, communication overhead increases geometrically. Beyond a certain threshold, each additional team member decreases the capacity of the group to do anything other than communicate.
Large companies are slow because they suffer from communication overhead.
Kaufman reflects on his own experience working at P&G. 
One of his projects involved creating a company-wide strategy on how to measure certain marketing tactics. Kaufman’s recommendations required input or approval from dozens of people across the company before anything could be implemented. 
Naturally, people had different ideas, debated various approaches, and wanted a share of the credit without having to commit to too much work or expense. 
As Kaufman puts it, he spent three months of full-time effort simply trying to create a working proposal.
“In the meantime, no actual work was being accomplished — 99 percent of my time was spent doing little more than communicating with other members of the group.”
Kaufman writes that the solution to communication overhead is straightforward but not easy: make your team as small as possible. 
You’ll be leaving people out, but that’s the point. 
Studies of effective teamwork usually recommend working in groups of three to eight people. You want your team to be “elite and surgical.”
If you’re wondering whether your team suffers from communication overhead, here are eight signs to look for:
1. Invisible decisions: No one knows how or where decisions are made. There’s no transparency in the decision-making process.
2. Unfinished business: Too many tasks are started and few are completed.
3. Coordination paralysis: Nothing can be done without checking with a large number of interconnected units.
4. Nothing new: There’s a general lack of initiative and few radical ideas or inventions.
5. Pseudo-problems: Minor issues are magnified out of proportion.
6. Embattled center: The center of the organization battles for consistency and control against local or regional units.
7. Negative deadlines: Deadlines for work become more important than the quality of the work itself.
8. Input domination: People react only to inputs – whatever is thrown at them instead of taking initiative.
Quote of the week
“Talking is like playing on the harp; there is as much in laying the hand on the strings to stop their vibrations as in twanging them to bring out their music.”
- Physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in his book The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858)
Other Weekly 3 issues about effective communication
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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