Brass tongue
February 13, 2008 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Why can't I articulate thoughts as crisply as I would like to?

Some people can expound on their thoughts for a long period of time without a hitch. I usually express my idea in one sentence, maybe two if I can manage. Life would be better if I were able to ask/answer questions and have the other person/people be satisfied with my answer because it addressed everything that it should have.

I can answer very specific questions perfectly fine, its not lack of knowledge that is holding me back. Rather it's broad questions where I find myself thinking "sh%t where do I even begin". This most likely has to do with my predominantly divergent thinking style, meaning I do not think linearly unless I force myself to do so.

I've got this feeling that most people just have some procedural knowledge built in and for some reason it's lost on me. So how do you go about organizing what you are going to say before you say it? What are strategies for speaking like a pro?
posted by pwally to Human Relations (22 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I have exactly the same problem. Which IANASpeechExpertTalkerGuy, I've found that simply taking a deep breath and s-l-o-w-i-n-g down helps immensely.

Now "slowing down like I'm imitation someone in slow motion" but simply reining in the tendency to have stuff come spilling out 10 directions at once. Work hard on concentrating on one thing and ignore the impulse to switch topics.
posted by unixrat at 10:00 AM on February 13, 2008

You might want to try toastmasters. They have an improvisational speech contest at every meeting (called table topics). It will give you a chance to practice.
posted by bananafish at 10:08 AM on February 13, 2008

It might be helpful if you gave a concrete example of a question and your answer for it here. Then people might be able to say how they might answer it.

Anyway, my advice would be to treat a question as if someone said "write an essay for me about X". Organize your thoughts like you would with the essay. Break what you want to talk about into points or topics, and then expand on each point.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:23 AM on February 13, 2008

The World Famous has a point. I tend to give long, detailed answers (oh, dear --- I hope this won't be one of them), which would be tremendously informative if anyone were listening past the second sentence.

I, too, subscribe to the belief that slowing down helps, both by giving your listeners a chance to take in what you're saying, and by giving you a chance to formulate it clearly.

it's broad questions where I find myself thinking "sh%t where do I even begin".

I address this by asking questions before I launch into an answer: "Hmm, that's a broad question. With which aspect of [cooking basics/ differential calculus/ Viking history/ wallpapering technique/ insert category] are you particularly concerned?" If I can identify the kernel that's of greatest interest to them at the moment, I can shorten my response and make it more to the point.
posted by Elsa at 10:26 AM on February 13, 2008

Paradoxically, I think reading a lot helps the most with this.
posted by lohmannn at 10:30 AM on February 13, 2008

Practice makes perfect-- pick a topic and make a five minute speech out of it, out-loud. For extra points, record yourself and note where you started to veer off course. Gradually you'll learn your own way of breaking down the subject and dealing with the pieces.
posted by Static Vagabond at 10:31 AM on February 13, 2008

Also.. I agree with lohmannn, the more you expose yourself to the language, the more comfortable you'll be using meaningful words to best represent whats going on in your noggin and importantly, the less you'll have to spend thinking of those words.
posted by Static Vagabond at 10:33 AM on February 13, 2008

"slowing down like I'm imitation someone in slow motion"

That's excellent advice. When I'm hyper, in front of the crowd, caffeinated, in addition to being full of adrenaline from being asked a question, it feels like I am Neo. Speaking in full paragraph requires executing my thoughts in slow motion.

A good trick is to deliver your answer like a newspaper article. You will notice they repeat the same thing, each time with more details. The first paragraph repeats the header. Second to fourth paragraph repeats the first paragraph. The rest of the article fills in the details.

Start with the one sentence answer. Then the one paragraph answer. And finally the rest of the essay.

It has the advantage of giving you a resting point between each step to gather your thoughts.
posted by gmarceau at 10:41 AM on February 13, 2008

If there's a subject you've read about, written about, and talked about, it's quite likely you can draw on those past conversations as a way to structure an off-the-cuff discussion.

I've had this experience, and sort of felt the mental gears clicking into place, where I start talking more or less at random, the synaptic connections light up, and then I quickly segue down those well-worn synaptic pathways.

Some of this comes down to practice. I had a girlfriend once who was instinctively a good debater, and I think that observing her, and crossing swords with her, made me better at organizing my thoughts on the fly.

When you say Life would be better if I were able to ask/answer questions and have the other person/people be satisfied with my answer because it addressed everything that it should have I'm guessing you have a specific incident in mind. Perhaps you could give us a f'rinstance. Nobody is psychic—you can't know for certain what nugget of information someone is trying to get at unless you play 20 questions or have some insight that lies outside their specific question. Just rambling on until you accidentally kick over that nugget is not a style of discourse you should aspire to.
posted by adamrice at 10:53 AM on February 13, 2008

People who expound on ideas for a long time are only professional windbags.

Written by someone who probably doesn't like to listen quietly to others... The World Famous is sorely mistaken if thinks that robotic, concise answers are always needed or desired.

You really only can give short answers when you and your audience are on exactly the same page about a given topic. Otherwise you find yourself delivering answers which are not informative or actionable to the person you're speaking with. How often does it happen in the real world where someone asks you your opinion on a given topic only to expect you to respond with an abridged answer and no explanation for how you arrived at such a conclusion? Almost never. Someone who communicates in this way is greatly disadvantaged in most social settings.

Being articulate, or rather being able to pickup a topic and fold into it various thoughts and opinion drawn from a large resource of previous experience or expertise is key to effective communication.

I agree with some of the posts above regarding "practice makes perfect" and I do know someone who had a lot of speech anxiety who improved upon it greatly by going to Toastmasters. For him his issue was social anxiety combined with some general inability to connect a well thought out narrative in his head with the words that were coming out of his mouth. He stills struggles with classic rhetoric, but he's a lot better than he used to be.

Good luck!
posted by wfrgms at 10:54 AM on February 13, 2008

I have a different but perhaps related problem, in that when I am faced with broad questions, I tend to just start talking without a plan, coupled with a tendency to repeat myself as I go rambling on. As you say, it isn't that I don't have a lot of information to impart, it is that I don't know how to organize it efficiently.

I think what has been the most useful to me is taking a few moments before speaking to give myself an opportunity to organize my thoughts. A few moments can feel like an eternity for the speaker, but for the listener, it is not a big deal. Then, as I continue along, I make sure to again take a few seconds every time I cover a new point. This gives me a chance to catch my breath, to reorganize my thoughts, to make sure that I am not repeating myself, and to check whether my audience is nodding off due to boredom or trying to escape or something.

The point above that brevity is good thing is also very important. Many times, even if the question if broad, the asker still does not want a lengthy answer. A short answer can give them the opportunity to narrow or focus their question. It is also not really fair or realistic to expect yourself to be able to answer every facet of someone's broad question. The person asking questions also has a responsibility to listen to your answers and ask further questions if need by. This is definitely not all on your shoulders.

One final point: there is a reason so much of Greek and Roman, medieval and renaissance education was devoted to oratory - it is a tough skill to master, and one that is quite different than putting down the same ideas in written form, or always speaking in pithy quips. So even if you are not yet Cicero, give yourself a break.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 11:16 AM on February 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I get asked this all the time - in my job, I often get asked very complicated, multi-faceted questions in client meetings that I have to answer, from scratch, with zero prep, based on my own knowledge and experiences. Often I'm the only one who can answer them to. A lot of the success I've had in my job has come from being able to do this. A few things help me.

1) I was in the Territorial Army for three years, and if anything refines your ability to quickly come up with a set of coherent messages, it's giving Quick Battle Orders with thunderflashes going off next to your head. Before going into any kind of meeting where you might have to answer questions like this, think back to times when you've done it before, whether it's my "I can handle this, these folks are civvies and there's no Sergeant Major screaming at me" trick or simply remembering a time you've told a complicated anecdote or joke at a party. It'll calm you down.

2) Take a second before you respond. If there are a lot of parts to your answer, don't be afraid to number them and write them on your notepad or a whiteboard or whatever.

3) Scribble while you speak. I'm a pretty visual thinker, so I often do these malformed box diagrams and scribbles while I'm speaking, or write lists. Quite often we're on conference calls, so the client doesn't even see them, but they help me not to overly focus on whether I'm tripping up over my own words.

4) Pause regularly and slow down. You will sound profound, knowledgeable and well-spoken, not dim, unsure or like you're bullshitting. I've slowed my speech down three or four magnitudes since I started working, and every time the feedback I get back after presentations about my speaking style improves.

5) Hand off to people who know more about something than you. In a team presentation, this kind of dynamic passing of the conversational flow can really show off both the individual knowledge and integration of your team.

Hope that helps...
posted by Happy Dave at 11:23 AM on February 13, 2008

I'm a pretty accomplished public speaker. I'll throw in two bones worth of advice.

First, being terse/succinct isn't bad. Most people don't have that skill. Covering everything is a bit tougher; professionally when someone is asking me 'the big question' and I see it's going to require several steps/concepts, I jot down one/two words per concept to make sure I cover them all.

Two, pause before you speak to frame your response. Generally, I target the most obvious/easy one to answer first. When I'm in front of an audience, I have a bottle of water (which permits easier pausing for Q&A).
posted by filmgeek at 11:27 AM on February 13, 2008

A lot of the answers thus far advise treating your speaking as if it were writing; how often do you write? I've found that writing, even casual/conversational "what is UP with all the Lean Cuisines in the office freezer and doesn't ANYONE here eat anything else nahmean?" blog entries, helps me to organize my thoughts on the subject into something more structured than "OMGLeanCuisineLOL." And the better you can organize your thoughts when you write, the better you can organize your thoughts when you speak. Writing is pretty much practice for speaking, and your speaking will get better if you write more.

As I go through your profile, I'm noticing that most of your answers to other Ask Mefi questions are short, but very resourceful - you know what you're talking about but you often let your links do most of the talking. I see you've got a blog, but most of the recent entries are YouTube videos with no additional commentary. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but these are both brilliant and low-key opportunities for you to just blather your ass off.

The other great thing about writing is that you don't have to think linearly, and you don't have the time constraint that public speaking has. You can write the first paragraph last, go back and edit for clarification, and put fragments of sentences in random places to flesh out later.

If you had a fear of speaking, my advice would be different, but it doesn't sound like you do. I think you'd benefit immensely from writing more, whether it's in a journal or just making your emails to friends a little longer.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:30 AM on February 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

1. Consider how much background you need to set the stage for the real soul of your answer. If you don't know how much background you need to get your idea across, ask the questioner how much they know about the subject. Deliver said background as concisely as possible.

2. Cut right to the answer as you know it. If questioner is content, you are done.

3. If necessary, support your answer with relevant facts/data/theories/etc.

4. Ask for questions and answer them.

If you're the type to go on tangents, it helps to think in this short framework. Don't allow yourself room to wind around in all these unnecessary details.

Of course, none of this helps if you're asked to give a fifteen minute presentation...
posted by advicepig at 11:30 AM on February 13, 2008

I am going to assume that this question extends to informal conversations. For example: You are talking to a colleague after work and you would like to make a point about how the media has caused a glamorization of Paris Hilton and therefore to blame for the idolization of idiots in our world. You might have mounds of meaning behind your words, but instead you only utter the words, "The Media is at fault, too. For the whole Paris Hilton thing. She's so popular, but it's got to be the media."

A couple of thoughts:
1. How about learning more vocabulary in order to speak more precisely. I discovered years ago that if I knew the meaning of more words, I would feel more confident about what I was saying. Also the improved diction gives you tools to use to be more precise.

2. Read more.

Best of luck.
posted by boots77 at 12:23 PM on February 13, 2008

If its possible to do prep or if you regularly have to speak about the same subjects or issues then writing down your thoughts is invaluable. I don't mean writing down a couple of points, I mean thinking on paper rather than in your head. I've found in doing this that I think a lot of things that I didn't know that I thought. I've also found that this often renders what I thought were clear thoughts in my head rather fuzzy on paper and in need of further exploration or explanation.
posted by ob at 12:24 PM on February 13, 2008

I'm fine in conversation with a few people that I'm familiar with, but when talking to larger groups, or people I don't know, I feel I often either over-edit or ramble. Now, when I know I'm going to be presenting to a group, even informally, is take 5-10 minutes or so to pen down and then organize all the points I want to hit. It helps a lot. I'll glance at my notes from time to time while I'm talking to help make sure I'm on track

I've also found that rehearsing expressing various thoughts just in my own head can help a lot when having to speak extemporaneously on a topic at some point. Writing them down, even just in outline form, can also help down the line when you find yourself having to talk about them.
posted by Good Brain at 12:32 PM on February 13, 2008

When I was in college, a monk visited our psychology class and was interviewed by the instructor about various aspects of monastery life. One unusual thing I noticed about him was that when he was asked a question, he would always pause for a noticeable length of time, maybe 3-10 seconds, before answering. (Maybe this is just a way of seconding unixrat's thought about slowing down.)
posted by davcoo at 1:24 PM on February 13, 2008

Confidence does wonders.
posted by JaySunSee at 4:47 PM on February 13, 2008

I found that a few philosophy courses on various subjects from theism to formal logic, were the difference between night and day. The thinking skills involved were very much about finding and weeding all substance from the waffle, and developing ways to express and organise that substance in ways that best communicate them to the intended listener. In time it became like having a mental co-processor that did all that work for me, so reflexive I was able to communicate quite well with ease.

Unfortunately, another thing that I found was that a few years after those courses, I was out of practise, those communicative skills atrophied noticeably, and compared to then, today it feels like I'm thinking and speaking through cotton wool.

But at least now I know there is an alternative to the cotton wool if I want to put in the time to get sharp again :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:36 PM on February 13, 2008

A verbal warm-up can be really helpful. My job consists of spending a lot of time in front of a computer, not doing too much interacting with anyone. Then someone arrives and asks me a question, and while the mental content is there for a rich, concise answer, I just can't spit it out.

But after a long conversation with people, whether socially or at work, I can get out what I want. Maybe you can find a way to do a bit of a verbal warmup before you're asked to speak about something?
posted by thenormshow at 8:38 PM on February 13, 2008

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