We all know the feeling. You see someone coming who you know never stops talking, and you either seek cover or tell the person you have an urgent problem that has to be attended to, such as a hangnail or a death in the family-anything to not have to listen to someone babble on, mostly about him or herself. I saw a column in the local newspaper the other day that started out, "Shutting up is an art. An unappreciated art. Perhaps it is our 24-hour media age, but people feel the need to fill the empty spaces."
How true. We have communication coming at us nonstop these days, most of it inconsequential. I can turn off the nattering commentators, but when someone has me pinned down at an event, I often don't know how to get away. It's really a wonder with such people that no one has ever told them they talk too much. It's impolite to tell folks to shut up and listen for a change, but maybe we ought to try it.Talking too much can literally kill a business deal. A friend of mine told me a story a few years ago, and I actually checked it out to make sure my friend wasn't kidding me. It happened to an ad salesman for a very prestigious automotive magazine. A division of General Motors spent quite a bit of money in this magazine, but GM's advertising manager would never agree to meet with a salesperson from the magazine.
The salesman was frustrated by this and felt it was his duty to see the ad manager as a courtesy. He made phone call after phone call to the manager's administrative assistant trying to get an appointment and he finally succeeded. When he got in to see the manager, the salesman talked his ear off thanking him for the business and extolling the virtues of his magazine as a vehicle for GM advertising. The manager never got a word in and after the salesman left, the manager called his ad agency and told them to cancel all the buys in that magazine and give them to a competing publication.
There's a reason we have the saying "Silence is golden." Oftentimes all you have to do is keep your mouth shut and people will give you credit. It's a sign that you are comfortable with yourself or you know more about the topic but are too polite to show off. Many years ago the head of a company I worked for in Chicago came to visit one of our major clients in New York. As the East Coast sales manager, I was asked to go on the sales call. I was nervous because the big boss had a reputation for being hard-nosed.
After picking him up at the airport, we drove out to the call. He wasn't very talkative, and because I felt he was probably tired, I didn't carry on a conversation with him except when he asked me a question. We had a very successful meeting, and then I drove him back to the airport to catch his plane. It was also a quiet drive to the airport. Later, I would wonder if I had made a good impression on the head of the company, and the next day my immediate supervisor told me his boss thought I showed great maturity by not talking too much.
Another sales story that comes to mind about talking too much involved one of this magazine's best salespeople. She's no longer with us, but she was a natural who exceeded her sales targets year after year. But one year she seemed to be in a slump and she came to me for help.
On her next trip I accompanied her, and we made calls together. On the very first call I immediately identified the problem. She was energetic and full of enthusiasm, but before any of us was even seated, she started talking. The client hadn't said a word yet. That is a cardinal rule in sales: The client should always be given the right and courtesy to speak first. Then to make matters worse, as my saleswoman was talking, the client said, "Come on, stop it. I've signed a 12-page contract for your magazine. So you don't have to sell me." But she went on talking, and ultimately I was forced to gently tell her to ease up.
It's hard to blame someone for being so focused and passionate about doing a hard sell, but she was so determined that she hadn't heard what the client had said. It was that simple and, yet, that complicated. She almost did the same thing on the next call, but she finally realized what she was doing wrong after we talked about it later in the day. Too much talking can be hazardous to a salesperson's success.
Lastly, there's the case of a top healthcare chief executive officer who went on a cruise with his wife and some other couples I know, and the only thing he talked about was himself and his accomplishments. He was such a crushing bore that the other couples tried everything they could to avoid spending too much time around him on the voyage.
When all someone does is talk and talk only about himself or herself, the listener has no reason to pay attention. The art of conversation involves talking, listening and knowing when to let silence fill the spaces in between. Even when you are talking, you need to pay attention to the visual cues as to how your message is being received. There are those like the man on the cruise who will never understand the difference, but for others, there are times to speak and many more times to listen or just be. Interestingly, it is the times when you aren't talking that can be the most valuable.