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I've recently come to a work place where people use a lot of useless business lingo and generally inflate communications with long unproductive fluff. I frequently find myself nodding and hoping they get to the point.

Typically, we sit there with our team doing our thing when a certain individual would show up and start telling us about leveraging our core competencies to find synergies in our every day work, or some nonsense like that. Eventually they'd get around to finally saying that what they really want us to do is write a small utility tool that generates a report that QA can use to assist customer trouble-shooting. What should have been a 5 minute conversation ends up being a 30 minute rant. Meanwhile, the whole task to write the tool is a 20 min job to begin with.

We get invited into meetings, and while there is an agenda, and strictly speaking we do stick to it, there appears to be a lot of fluff around every discussion. It's almost as if this verbosity is part of the company culture here. At the same time, our team has a lot of hard and interesting work to do.

This has started driving me up the wall recently. I don't want to come off rude when I talk to people, but I need some strategies to get them to be more concise and direct in their communications for the benefit of myself and those on my team.

Are there any good tactics/strategies of achieving this?

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welcome to the corporate world –  amphibient Jan 30 '13 at 19:12
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The only solutions to this that I can think of that are certain to work are inspired by Dilbert cartoons and would probably get you fired/arrested. :( –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jan 30 '13 at 21:30
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You wrote a 4 paragraph question about getting to the point. "...communications with long unproductive fluff." Is there such a thing as productive fluff? –  JeffO Jan 30 '13 at 21:52
    
Are you a musician? "Take the coda." –  Trojan Jan 28 at 21:32
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When in boring meetings, I like to practice my drawing. It looks like I'm taking notes, so people think I'm attentive, I get to practice my drawing skills, and it is a nice, relaxing break from stressful business life. –  Superbest Jan 29 at 5:35
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14 Answers 14

up vote 101 down vote accepted

Start asking questions early on in the fluff talk. If a person is a few minutes into a jargon-filled rant, and you have no idea what he is saying yet, politely cut him off and say something like:

  • "Excuse me, I'm sorry, I'm not following. What exactly do you need us to do?"
  • "I see...so how exactly can we help you accomplish this?"
  • "Synergy, yes, I totally agree. So, should we whip up a new report for you? What do you want it to look like?"
  • "Just so I know what my action items are, you're saying you want us to make an XYZ report, right? How soon do you need it done?"

This allows you to politely guide the conversation, while at the same time forcing the fluff talker to get to the point.

If you do this often enough, people will eventually learn that you are a straight-to-the-point communicator and they may stop being so verbose when speaking to you.

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why lie? the OP knows what he is saying, he just doesn't want to listen to a 30 minute rant. Saying he didn't follow gives a false air of stupidity for the OP –  squeemish Jan 30 '13 at 19:44
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@squeemish OP says he often finds himself "hoping they get to the point" and "Eventually they'd get around to finally saying that what they really want us to do". This tells me that OP does not know what the fluff talkers want until way too far into the meeting. So, it's not lying, and you never sound stupid when asking people to clarify something. –  Jefferson Jan 30 '13 at 19:48
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I usually use this tactic of politely cutting in with a very specific question when I see an opportunity, but I tend to use different wording then what you posted, such as "I see, so what exactly would you like me to do?" –  Rachel Jan 30 '13 at 19:52
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@suslik This works well for a group too. Simply jump in with a very specific question about what exactly it is they want you to do. Be sure you only ask your question though, because if you also include some comment about what they were saying, they can easily get sidetracked away from your question and continue talking about frivolities to "respond" to your comment instead. –  Rachel Jan 31 '13 at 13:57
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@suslik I added another example of a cut-in sentence that may work well in a group setting. Ask what your action items are. Then, after you get your answer, if the meeting continues down a path that's completely irrelevant to you, wait for a good time to excuse yourself by saying (while standing up): "Well, I think I know what you want from our end, and I have my action items, so I'm gonna go get started on this." –  Jefferson Jan 31 '13 at 14:19
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You need to forge a new mission statement which establishes brevity as a core value for your organization. Then hold meetings to find stakeholders who will buy in to the innovative paradigm. Be sure to mark down action items for everyone, and track them so that they follow through with their new commitments, so that everyone is on the same page.

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+1: Practical and hilarious! –  Ergwun Jan 31 '13 at 2:06
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Attention all staff, temporary workers and contractors. Please disregard the previous memo on the issue of brevity. Upon the request of several senior executives, "idea" has been replaced with "innovative paradigm". –  Kaz Jan 31 '13 at 2:45
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You forgot to shift the paradigm to incorporate a core value based solution while increasing the synergy with our business partners. But otherwize great answer. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 31 '13 at 14:39
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Needs more leveraging assets and talent. And how can you have synergy without collaboration? –  enderland Jan 31 '13 at 14:50
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@JoeBaker Action Item hero has the perfect answer for that: "Check the scope document, Joe! I do not see that on our list of deliverables for this milestone. This is just a high level meeting to determine how we may add value to the project, so there is no need to start drilling that deep." –  Kaz Jan 31 '13 at 21:38
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Maybe you're missing what they're after

I'm a programmer and I'm 95% sure I'd agree with you if we were colleagues. However, in the interest of fairness, I want to suggest an alternate perspective.

start telling us about leveraging our core competancies to find synergies in our every day work, or some nonesense like that... ... what they really want us to do is write a small utility tool that generates a report that QA can use to assist customer trouble-shooting.

Let's assume the speakers aren't deliberately wasting your time. Could it be that they're trying to convey a vision of their desired workflow? Maybe they're hoping you'll come up with a Big Idea, and they only agree to a "small utility tool" that solves the immediate problem when you press them on it.

I'm imagining them saying "we want to have better visibility into our process", and vaguely imagining a system that tracks what people are doing, assigns work automatically, and rewards top performers. When pressed, they can only articulate some kind of report, which you produce.

This could be a case where you're doing a great job building the wrong thing.

Of course, they could just be pointy-hairs with nothing better to do than have meetings. :)

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Just had this happening the other day. It was very evident that the idea needed this dialogue to mature, as opposed to bringing a finished design. We ended up with something quite different than was originally envisioned. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Nov 11 '13 at 16:36
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+1 Totally agree. Although I'm a many-years developer myself, I believe the biggest issue with most of developers nowadays is that they perceive things in buttons and textboxes and reports, etc., not in terms of profit, benefit and outcome. Even if the task is defined in comprehensive fashion, there are so many ways to achieve same goal. Developer who doesn't understand WHY he should create these buttons WILL make wrong decisions on the way. I saw it so many times... –  Andrey Markeev Jan 29 at 10:49
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Typically, we'd be sitting there with our team doing our thing when a certain individual would show up and start telling us about leveraging our core competancies to find synergies in our every day work, or some nonesense like that. Eventually they'd get around to finally saying that what they really want us to do is write a small utility tool that generates a report that QA can use to assist customer trouble-shooting. What should have been a 5 minute conversation ends up being a 30 minute rant. Meanwhile, the whole task to write the tool is a 20 min job to begin with.

First, it sounds like you don't have a good structure for assigning work if people just can walk up and request things. If you have no official "request" structure, start. Use a system where people must write requests into a system or email the requests to you.

If you don't get manager support initially, start keeping track of the total time you spend, and the "lost" time you and your team wastes so you can use this as leverage (buzzword ftw).

Either way, you can respond to someone walking up with the following - "hey, we're really busy right now. Can you email me the requirements? I'll call/email you if I have any questions."

We get invited into meetings, and while there is an agenda, and strictly speaking we do stick to it, there appears to be a lot of fluff around every discussion. It's almost as if this verbosity is part of the company culture here. At the same time, our team has a lot of hard and interesting work to do.

Talk with your manager and address your concerns about this. If meetings are a waste of your time, your manager should know this. Don't just accept every meeting request blindly.

You may also be able to attempt to get meetings to be shorter - "hi, I would like to attend, but my time is limited this week - is it possible we can make the meeting 1/2 hour instead of an hour?" Meetings have an annoying tendency to fill the allotted time even when it may not be required.

Another option with meetings is to request of the asker, "hi, what specifically will you need me at this meeting for? my team has some critical deadlines this week and I'm not sure why I need to attend this." This helps them at least clarify why you are there ahead of time.

Are there any good tactics/strategies of achieving this?

I frequently find myself nodding and hoping they get to the point.

Don't do this - you want to make it clear you are busy, have other things to do, and otherwise don't want to listen to them ramble.

What you should do is take initiative and lead discussions by either

  • Asking leading questions. Something like "are you suggesting we do XXXX?" can easily move discussion to a tangible item and avoid some of the BS.
  • Asking clarification questions. If you don't have enough understanding to ask a leading question, just ask for clarification. Even if you are wrong it again can move the discussion to more details, which is what ultimately need discussing.

You mention your meetings have agendas which means you should always be able to find leading questions. Ask about the next agenda item if you have to.


Disclaimer: try the following at your own risk

  • Play this video on a projector screen in meetings
  • Make this your background
  • Get a ticking kitchen timer and set it on the table. If people object, point out "I just want it to be really obvious we are spending a lot of time here so hopefully we can make this more efficient."

Or, buy this and put up in your office environment

enter image description here

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"we're really busy right now", "my time is limited this week", "critical deadlines this week" - Personally, I don't like these either. We are not always busy, or always have critical work: work time should be valuable anyway. We don't need a special reasons to avoid wasting time. –  Kobi Jan 31 '13 at 7:33
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@Kobi there are a lot of people in the world who have no interest in working while at work, or, at the very least, no interest in being remotely productive. Maybe you've been lucky enough to never encounter them. –  enderland Jan 31 '13 at 14:01
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+1 for addressing the root issues here. –  Jefferson Jan 31 '13 at 14:23
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+1 - For "Can you email me the requirements?" If they're really as committed to their thoughts as they claim, then force them to prove it by spending their time and not yours to articulate it. Putting the burden back on them inherently weeds out time wasting and posturing. –  Joel B Jan 31 '13 at 15:04
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Asking for requirements is most likely a misunderstanding. They may need to do iterative design with you to find out what needs to be done and how to do it. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Nov 3 '13 at 20:53
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Have you tried asking the speaker to get to the point in a direct way? There are tactics you can use like pitch of voice and gestures that are warming and are not perceived as rude that can counteract the directness of the statement. "We've got a lot on our plate over here at the moment, what exactly is it that you need?" is direct, non-confrontational if said in a non-aggressive way, and by using "a lot on our plate" you are subtly playing their "bullshit bingo" game and they may even appreciate that little bit.

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Its buzzword bingo... bullshit bingo is a different game though they smell the same –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 30 '13 at 19:51
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Try "Leading By Example"

If possible, ask the meeting scheduler if you could lead a meeting. That means they may have the notes and bulletpoints to be discussed, but then you would play dogsled team and keep everything on track. You might even just voluntarily take that role during any random meeting. just be aware of what's going on so that you don't step on any toes.

It will only take about 2 of these such meetings before you start getting comments from other attendees. If you don't get those comments, then apparently people like these meetings.

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When scheduling your meeting, specify both the starting and finishing time, and then send everyone the meeting agenda which should contain what will be discussed and how long each parts should go. Always stick to the agenda, cut people off if you think they're rambling too much, remind them that they're running late according to the agenda, let them have quick wrap up, then go to the next point in the agenda even if the discussion are not finished. Also, tell people about the Inverted Pyramid so they get their points across on the opening sentence.

Fluffs may also come from a lack of preparation before meeting, therefore they were really thinking aloud as they speak, or more often is because they want to describe their thought process in detail so everyone can follow them. In creative discussions, "designing out loud" is often necessary and is a good thing because creatives have to justify why the "small utility tool" need to be built in that particular way, they need to make sure that their design decisions meet both the immediate goals and also the broader company goals. If your role is just to build tools that others have specified, you do not really need to care of those lengthy justifications so they might appear as fluffs; however without going through those lengthy thought process, you might end up building the wrong tool in 20 minutes and then spending the next three hours in back and forth emails wasting everybody's time in the finance, sales, and customer service department before finally nailing it down.

Another reason why you get a lot of fluffs is maybe because the speaker were addressing other attendants which may not be as up to date as you are on certain topics; what is a fluff to you might be another's points of interest. This kind of meeting usually comes from a meeting that have too many people coming from every departments discussing too many topics. Instead, have a smaller, more focused meetings, invite only those who need to hear this particular topic and leave the rest with an "open invitation" by saying "the topic of this meeting are not relevant for you however you are welcome to attend if you want to". With smaller meetings, it is easier to keep track of what everyone already knows and what they need to know, therefore less fluffs.

Finally, you might want to use the old trick of peeking at your watch. This might not be received well by everyone though.

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Make it billable!

You most likely have a system in place where your time is registered in order to bill customers. Up front, ask for where to register your time (for all involved).

This makes said person a customer instead of a colleague and you now have all the time in the world to find out what they need and how to make it. (Most customers do not know what they need so this is important)

Also remember that they may need to get permission to use you, so if it is really bad consider asking up front if they have gotten that yet.

Try not to be too annoyed. This is a social skill!

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The op is asking how he can develop the social skill. This answer does not really address the problem. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Nov 5 '13 at 15:06
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@Chad Please reread the question. He is not asking how to develop the social skill - he is asking for strategies to help people get to the point. One strategy is to make the time valuable. –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Nov 5 '13 at 17:52
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Not everyone communicates in the same way. I think we can distinguish 4 types of people.

  • RED energy: Be brief, bright and gone
  • YELLOW energy: Be creative, wild and share enthusiasm
  • GREEN energy: Be connected, personal and patient
  • BLUE energy: Be precise, truthful and sharp

You strike to me as a person with RED energy: "get to the point". Your boss(es) might have GREEN, YELLOW and/or BLUE energy: they want to show they care (green), so they elaborate on both the practical as the emotional level in an attempt to create enthusiasm (yellow) and deliver every tiny detail even if they are redundant for you (blue).

To answer your question, every energy type has a way to handle other energy types. In your case, that means applying the following tactics:

RED vs GREEN:

  • DO: Talk to them personally and say you have a problem. Talk about feelings (I feel like I get distracted around here) and not facts (I'm wasting time). By having these personal talks, people with green energy will feel a strong connection with you and will do whatever they can to help you.
  • DON'T: shun them off or attack them personally, because they will be offended and lose their emotional connection with you (you need this connection to make any co-worker relation work)

RED vs BLUE:

  • DO: Say the fact, date and exact numbers as to why you are having a problem. Stress the fact that you want things to be more efficient, organized. Mention you are already on the same page and aware of the inner details of the project. Do not use feelings but facts.
  • DON'T: elaborate, lie or get to personal. Don't use made-up data/facts or rough estimates of time. Example: rather than saying "the meeting was way too long, it could be more efficient, like, i'm sure we could do this in only 5 minutes" (this is vague and unproven) say something like: "This meeting took 30 minutes, but the only real point was X. Is it possible to do this in 15 minutes in the future by skipping the introduction? I have proven I can handle the details of this type of thing in the past with project Y"

RED vs YELLOW:

  • DO: Share their enthusisasm. Reply and talk as much as possible to show your interested. Boost their ego by giving compliments on their thinking. If the talks get too long/wild, cut it off by saying "Wow, that idea is great! I can't wait to implement it, how about I start working on it right now, I'm on a tight schedule you see?. I'll totally let you know how it goes. We'll have meeting later to share more ideas. Thanks!
  • DON'T: do not tear down any of their arguments or attack their ego. Do not show any disinterest, because they will only talk EVEN MORE in an attempt to convince you and share their vision/idea/enthusiasm. If you ignore yellow energy, they will be wrathful.
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Bonus: Red vs Red. DO: share their vision, put your own needs aside in favor of the needs of the company/boss DON'T: question the other person's authority or expertise. –  user1884155 Jan 29 at 10:33
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Is this just a categorization you came up with for the sake of this post or is there some research behind it that you could cite? –  CMW Jan 29 at 10:53
    
It is based on a group dynamics course we attended at work. The course was given by "Insight", a belgium company. They have summarized research on this topic and presented it in an easy-to-grasp/commercialized "color energies" version. So yes, it is based on something, but no, I can't claim it is based solely on scientific research. –  user1884155 Jan 29 at 11:31
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Maybe you could include a pointer to background materials, if there's any available freely. –  CMW Jan 29 at 11:47
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I've arrived to a point in which I have zero tolerance for those things.

In some occasions the speaker is someone who actually knows what he's talking about, but he's been infected by corporative talkitis. Just asking "can you please explain it without using corporative terms? We are not used to them and they are hard for us to follow". They will usually comply (I might have to call their attention once or twice before they definitively stop using them).

The key to determine if someone is too far away is listening to the verbs. If they say "developing a production strategy" instead of "planning", they are terminal. You will not get anything useful from those guys. Concentrate on leaving as soon and politely as you can, because the meeting will be a waste of time. If what the talker was saying was really important, have them send you an email so you (or someone in your team) can extract the information from written text, which is much simpler than in real time (you can search and replace).

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When you say "I don't really want to come off rude, but" remember that any "not X, but justification" statement can be reduced to "X". In other words, you really do want to come off rude because you are frustrated.

Your rudeness probably means that the speaker feels he needs to persuade you, which means 20 minutes of why this is important building up to 5 minutes of and here is what we need to do. I feel for you; because, you will find that it is much harder to remove an idea from a persons head than to put it there, and you're putting all the wrong ideas about yourself in his head.

It is hard to police ourselves, we get very tuned to policing others. Just remember that you can only influence the environment by controlling yourself. That means as you find a way into a better means of communication, you can only change your behavior. Expecting the other parties to get with the program diverts one's gaze from the techniques that will work. You need to set the program, by listening attentively and sympathetically, and they will follow. A heard person seldom repeats themselves.

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Early in my career I had similar feelings. I was known for the line "And your point is?" I have learned there are many factors when dealing with people. Everybody is different, but we all share some similarities. We all have the need to feel listened to and be respected. Developers tend to express this in code. Non-developers tend to express this with talking.

The only thing you can control is you. Ask yourself why you are getting upset? Try to center your feelings and stop thinking to yourself "will this guy get to the point" the whole time they are talking. What is going on inside of you can often be picked up by those around you. Each person will react differently to this. Controlling yourself is the important first step in getting along with others.

I would also recommend reading "How to win friends and influence people", by Dale Carnegie. The title is misleading. It was the first book that opened up my eyes to the fact that not everyone is like myself.

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There are groups other than your team that are also invited e.g. management that thrive on MBA-talk, so telling the MBAs to "Cut out the MBA-talk and tell us what you want" is most likely not an option. MBAs are politicians and if politicians invite soldiers to meetings, soldiers must expect that politicians will talk like politicians - It's the nature of their job and the job attracts the kind of people with higher social intelligence who love to talk. Given that they probably made MBA-talk into an integral part of their culture and that the audience is more than just your team, I am not sure that your team can do do anything about the MBA-talk except to suffer through it, and I suggest that your team may best served by sending in a couple of representatives i.e. sacrificial lambs such as yourself rather than the whole team to gather the functional requirements for the app the MBAs want the team to write :) Don't forget to ask for free food :)

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People who do this are hoping you will take charge and show them the path. They are rambling because they really don't know what to say, and have trouble expressing what they want in clear terms. I respond to this by simply putting up a hand, stopping them in some way, and guiding them into a detailed discussion of what they want. I stop them, tell them to stop talking if needed, telling them on no uncertain terms that their comments don't get us closer to our goal - subtly accusing them of not being a team player. This works most of the time, and if it doesn't, I tend to mentally write off that person as not helpful and I try to avoid them. You have no responsibility to listen to people who walk up and interrupt your work. If they aren't helping the company, get rid of them.

And, if it's a case of them just rambling at me and they really don't want anything, I give them a task. I have near perfect recall, so I'll go back to something they said ten minutes earlier, which now seems completely irrelevant, and point it out by quoting them word-for-word. Like this... "A while back you said 'we should focus on our core competencies' and I don't think we can continue with this project until you bring me a list of what those are" - that is, give them something stupid to do, that seems serious because they asked for it. If they want to leverage core competencies but can't list what those are, there is a big problem. "Which competencies do you want to leverage?" Bring me a list.

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*comments removed* Please remember what comments are for. And Be Nice. –  jmac May 30 at 1:22
    
Thanks, now I can't see what happened? This is a perfectly fine answer. I don't understand why people have a problem with it. This is a legit thinig to do. –  Jasmine May 30 at 17:07
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