Coaching an adult in speaking more effectively
February 12, 2020 7:44 AM   Subscribe

I have been asked to coach the young woman who I supervise in speaking more effectively. Are there any resources that could help me?

I supervise one employee, a young woman I will call "Jessica". She's a great employee in most ways, and has done a good job for me. She's 30 but comes across as much younger due to the way she speaks. She talks very fast and at great length about things that are on her mind, including during our meetings, jumping from topic to topic in a very unorganized way, without ever finishing her thoughts on any topic. She interrupts both herself and others to flit off on a whatever new thought comes up. It's not mental-illness related, I don't think. The tangents she goes off on are related to the conversation, but just ill-timed as you can never fully finish up with topic A before she switches gears on a dime and begins rambling about topics B, C and D.

It hasn't been a huge problem for me in our one-on-one meetings, I just interrupt when necessary to steer her back on course if I need more info or have questions on something she jumped away from. It is rather exhausting and hard to follow.

However, she has recently gotten some rather complex new job duties that requires her to periodically interact directly with the manager I report to, I'll call her Linda. After their first one-on-one meeting yesterday, Linda called me into her office and said that she had a huge issue with Jessica's verbal communication style and that she wanted me to coach her to help her organize her thoughts and express them in a more coherent style. She found her exhausting and difficult to follow, and she also expressed a concern about her interacting with people in our parent company and other companies with whom she will be collaborating in her new role.

I am willing to do this, and my initial thought is that I will request her to bring organized notes to our meetings with a general update on her workload, and then each individual issue she wants to discuss outlined separately so she can discuss each in turn.

Do you have any other ideas or techniques that would be helpful? Are there any other resources such as books I can read to work with her more effectively on this, online courses I could recommend her, a day course I could send her to?

I did want to mention that suggestions of Toastmaster would not be helpful. She has a young child and would have little time to commit to such a program during her off hours. We had a program on-site a few years ago but it was discontinued.
posted by Serene Empress Dork to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I think she needs to understand that this is something she needs to work on. Hopefully your boss has already provided that feedback so she understands that is where you come in.

It doesn’t necessarily sound as if she’s had any coaching on effective meetings and on respecting others’ time. So introduce those concepts.

Introduce the idea that meeting preparation includes practicing how to present your points. You could even offer to role play.

Introduce her to making a note of random thoughts when listening to others and bringing them up at appropriate times.

Presumably a complex project has regular touch points with various stakeholders. Help her to develop standing agendas for each of these stakeholders and coach her how to use them well. to stick to them.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:06 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]

Years ago, I used to help folks who needed to tighten up their presentations with a home-grown version of the Ignite presentation format. Basically, you prepare a presentation of 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds, so it's 5 minutes exactly. It's stressful and hilarious when you first try it, but the practice of giving yourself time limits that won't change because you went off-track really does help people learn to keep on-topic right away. There's no need to join any sort of program; you can just set up a PowerPoint deck to do this and practice right in the office.
posted by xingcat at 8:15 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]

Has she been screen for attention deficit?
posted by theora55 at 9:25 AM on February 12

I don't think it would be appropriate to suggest to their face that a direct report has a medical issue. If they do have this issue, it is not the supervisor's business unless the report brings it up voluntarily.

You need to focus on the symptoms and not what you think the source is, as hard as that may be. Firstly out of respect for her privacy and second because you are not a doctor or therapist.
posted by soelo at 9:56 AM on February 12 [8 favorites]

Would it help her to learn to prepare for meetings with an agenda... for herself?
posted by DarlingBri at 10:14 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

I think that you should be straightforward and direct in telling her that this is something she needs to work on. This is hard to do. Asking that she bring organized notes and outlined topics is not the same thing as telling her that her communication style is making her ineffective and hurting her credibility. As a manager, I prefer to let my direct reports know a) THAT there is a problem, and b) the OUTCOME that needs to be achieved, but I let them figure out the HOW of how they get there, because my suggestions or methods are what I'd think of but may not work for everyone - but I don't want them to get so wrapped up in doing exactly what I said that they end up not achieving the outcome I really want. It seems to me that your suggestion addresses the how but not really the other things.

If she's the kind of person who learns from reading, here are some books I've read and recommend (you might find them helpful for coaching her too, if you think she doesn't have time to read them outside of work):
Harvard Business Review on Communicating Effectively
HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across (HBR Guide Series)
Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done
Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:59 AM on February 12 [5 favorites]

Hi there, I am a Jessica.

I agree with peanut_mcgillicuty that I think the most respectful thing to do is to be direct about what the issue is, and involve her in the problem-solving.
- Of course you know your personal dynamic best, but if my manager started requesting agendas for our 1<>1's, I would assume that *they* just needed some organization help. I would not realize that I was being asked to improve in some way.
- I would specifically frame this as, "I want to invest in your growth, and this is a thing I see keeping you back, especially with Linda," instead of "Linda finds you exhausting." :)
- Then, have a frank conversation with her to see how she reacts. Does she agree with the feedback? Is she defensive? Is it a total surprise to her? There may be an emotional hump to get over before you can start brainstorming solutions.
- During this conversation, you might consider asking questions to learn more specifics about when/why this is a problem for her. (For me, this problem for me is especially bad when I'm either the only woman in the room, or talking to executives. Both things make me nervous, and I put extra pressure on myself to perform. In this case, validation that those things are indeed extra scary helps.)
- Follow-up with specific unemotional feedback at the time when it is happening. This type of feedback is super abstract during 1<>1's. I find it most helpful for my manager to say in the moment, "This meeting was about X. We should wait for another time to address Y." Or, "Great job keeping that meeting on track. It was especially helpful when you redirected ABC towards PQR."

In general, I'd put the responsibility on her to search for books/classes/etc and to start documenting things she's trying to improve. Personally, some things that have worked for me are:
- Processing thoughts (via writing or talking to someone else) before a meeting, so that I can come into the meeting with a clear agenda
- Taking a break right before a meeting, so I don't come in charged-up from a previous task.
- Writing thoughts down during meetings, so that I don't feel pressure to say them RIGHT NOW, and can decide later whether they're worth bringing up
- Having conversations with my manager to identify which meetings for "let's brainstorm/process together" vs. which ones are for "lets keep everyone on track to make decisions".

I commend you for taking your role as a manager so seriously -- best of luck!
posted by tinymegalo at 2:48 PM on February 12 [8 favorites]

My boss recently had me do an hour-long Skype session with a speech skills trainer. It was pretty helpful! Memail me if you want the trainer we used (I would have to look up the name). I think it could be useful to let your report know that speech skills are something you and her grand boss want her to work on, but having the actual feedback come from an outside person could be useful!
posted by mskyle at 5:26 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

« Older iOS Game Suggestions   |   Problems installing BIOS, Windows 10, &... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments