What I’m not telling you

There’s mystery in what people don’t say—let’s use that to our advantage.

When you ask someone, “How are you?” you get the mysterious, “Fine.”

No one says, “Well, my spouse ran off with the plumber, and ever since she left, I’ve been despondent. Also, the upstairs sink hasn’t been draining properly.”

But in other conversations, the border between what to disclose vs. not gets murky.

I recently patrolled that border with a group of research scientists, while working on their upcoming presentations. Every presentation lives, or dies, at that border.

We all know what it’s like to be in the audience. I often advise clients to imagine an unpleasant dental procedure.

Suppose your presentation is 10 minutes. That’s a 10 minute procedure. And if you’re one of eight people presenting that day, we’d need to multiply those 10 minutes by eight dentists.

That’s a long time.

The Gettysburg Address, as you’ve probably heard at least 272 times, was only 272 words—2 minutes. You wouldn’t need a dentist for that, just a hygienist, cleaning and flossing at breakneck speed.

So, what’s the right amount of detail?

Well, depends on your audience: How much do they need, or want, to know?

But also ask this: Wouldn’t you rather your audience left thinking, “That meeting was way too short—I wish there’d been another 37 PP slides!” than the opposite?

Then consider, there are different ways to “tell.”

You already know the value of a preview (tell them what you’re going to tell them), and a review (tell them what you’ve told them), although it’s shocking how seldom we use these tools.


Here’s something different: Tell them what you’re NOT going to tell them.

For an example, watch “Jerry Maguire,” one of my favorite movies.

Jerry, a struggling sports agent played by Tom Cruise, angrily tells his only client how he feels about representing him: “It’s an up at dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I WILL NEVER FULLY TELL YOU ABOUT.”

But of course, he just did. He gave the headline, not the detail.

A research scientist could say, “I’m not going to tell you about each of the 278 validation studies we ran. Let’s just say, it was complicated.” Message: We didn’t just pull this data out of a hat.

Tip: When it comes to either information or dentistry, less is more.

© Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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