Great Talkers Run Stop Signs

25 Apr 2014. Robert E. KaplanPodcast

I am awed by great talkers —all the more so since that has not been my forte.

I’m awed by their command of content—whether it’s a detailed critique of their organization’s position in the marketplace or an off-the-cuff discourse on the fourth industrial revolution. Enviably, they retain what they read. It’s all at their fingertips.

I’m awed by the power and ease of their delivery—the moxie to hold forth at length, all eyes on them, their ability to recount an intricate story, their way with words.

I am also dismayed by great talkers.

They blithely disregard conversational traffic signals that are obvious to the rest of us. They keep their feet firmly on the gas pedal and ignore the brake, and don’t know when to yield to oncoming traffic. Writing long before the advent of the motor vehicle, Michel Montaigne, the French essayist, observed this phenomenon: “There is nothing in which the strength of a horse is better recognized than in making a full sharp stop. But even among people who speak to the point I see some who want to break off their run and cannot.”

I am stunned by this tendency in one CEO I know. When he comes to the end of a conversational block, where it seems to me there stands a stop sign, he runs it and without a pause starts down the next block, making it difficult for his listeners to follow his thinking. They thought he was still on 5th Avenue when in fact he had turned into Central Park. Blessed with a high IQ, vast capacities and a photographic memory, his ability to communicate is nonetheless hampered by his poor “driving” habits.

Another executive I’ve worked with is remarkably fluent, both as a speaker and with the ins and outs of his business, from the strategic level down to the fine points of this quarter’s financials. In a staff meeting , in a town hall or on a webcast, he certainly grabs and holds people’s attention, but sadly often talks past the point of diminishing returns. He doesn’t shift gears soon enough –or at all—into, what do you think?

Gabrielle Hamilton, the founder-owner-chef of a distinctively good New York restaurant called “Prune,” offers a witty but apt description of overtalkers’ syndrome in her spirited autobiography, describing a conversation with her sister: “Her purpose is not merely to convey to me the story or the information until I have comprehended. Her purpose is to take a long luxurious bath in my ear and to disgorge the entire unedited contents of her brain—with sidebars, cul-de-sacs, dead-ends, and repetitions...She’ll say, okay, long story short—and then continue on her winding, circuitous, often amusing way for another several detailed chapters. I understand every single word of it, every stop for gas, every detour.”

Once they get going, overtalkers succumb to Newton’s first law of motion and have a high-torque tendency to stay in vocal motion. Likewise, their listeners find it difficult to put their mouths in gear once their vocal engines idle for too long. Again, Montaigne: “It is difficult to close a train of speech and cut it short once you are under way.”

In fairness, it may be innate. From a regional sales manager’s mouth words pour out like morning traffic from the Lincoln tunnel. A great story teller, he tells two too many stories. According to his father, he was always been this way. As a toddler in a shopping cart, smiling brightly he said hi to everyone. His exuberance crossed over into overexuberance.

When I encounter overtalkers, what I do, or attempt to do, is turn monologues into dialogues.

I consulted to a senior manager who had a professorial streak. Understandably so: she has a Ph.D. and started her career on a university faculty. With her team or in larger meetings, it was an uphill struggle for anyone to get a word in edgewise. It would have been easy to defer to her—after all, she made good points and gave colorful examples. When I met with her alone or with others, I broke in early, politely, before she built up momentum—to ask a question or make a point. I was firm when she interrupted as I began to interject. I’d continue to cut in until it became a two-way street, which she seemed to welcome.

I used to work with a brilliant, articulate and witty talker, who incidentally claimed to be an introvert. Be that as it may, once he got going, he was in his own world, deaf to my attempts to stop him. I went so far as to stand on the table (in my stocking feet) and comically wave my arms at him. Then he’d startle and come to a halt and get back into a back-and-forth.

That’s the thing about great talkers. Though they are naturally given to monologues, many of them are capable of and even thrive in dialogues. But first you have to convert communication into a two-way street.


© Kaplan DeVries Inc.