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Use Fewer Words to Get Better Results

28 May 2019

Barbara listened to the Harvard Business Review’s Women at Work podcast, Sorry Not Sorry, by Amy Bernstein, Amy Gallo, and Nicole Torres and found four useful suggestions that would benefit everyone.

Tags: barbara read, communication, women and leadership

Three regular contributors to HBR on the topic of women and leadership interviewed Karina Schumann, an assistant professor of psychology a the University of Pittsburgh who describes her findings in her study, Why Women Apologize More than Men, and Sally Helgesen who co-wrote How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding you Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job.

The 40-minute podcast rambled a bit more than I liked, and I wouldn’t recommend listening to it unless you enjoy the back and forth nature of these kinds of conversations. However, I do plan to read Helgesen’s book, and I did think the following suggestions from their discussion might be useful to our readers.

Don’t say you are sorry unless it is absolutely appropriate. It’s generally thought that women apologize more than men, but Schumann’s research does not completely support that idea. She said men do apologize when they think they are wrong, but they don’t think they are wrong as often as women do. Other phrases in addition to “I’m sorry,” that “minimize yourself, your presence, and your contribution” are:

  • “I’m just.
  • I’m no expert, but…
  • Kind of."

These phrases are verbal habits. Begin to notice how often you use them and try to eliminate as many of them as possible.

Also, don’t start your emails with you’re sorry it has taken you a long so to answer. Just begin the email and don’t waste words. There are still times when I feel the need to apologize if I’ve been delinquent, but I will be noticing how often I do this and eliminating the habit when I can.

Don’t write long mails. They should be short and cover only one subject. I was glad to hear someone else be definitive about the one subject recommendation. I’ve thought it but figured it was unreasonable to ask for such brevity. Helgesen said the emails that are the most effective are as “concise as possible.” Even though people like to include all the things they have on their minds at the time, the receivers often don’t read them once they see how long the email is.

Don’t tell all the backstory of how you arrived at your idea. Helgesen has seen studies that say women in the US “use, on average, 20,000 words a day and men use 7000….women bond through …constant communication with one another.”  It’s fine for women to connect with other women using many words, but they need to use less words if they are describing something that needs to get done in the organization.

I learned this quickly when I went to work for the American College of Physician Executives in 1990. I’d been there one month when I went into my boss to propose an idea to him. I was telling the story of how I arrived at the conclusion, and he smacked his hands together and said, “Cut to the chase. What do you want?” I never went in again with a long story. I told him the punch line and then asked if he wanted any background on my thinking. Sometimes he did, but most of the time he didn’t. He was very intuitive, and if he suspected I hadn’t done quite enough research, he always asked for it.  

Another reason women may use a lot of words and even fillers like um and ah is to keep from being interrupted. Helgesen said it is more effective to say “Excuse me, I’m still speaking here.” I also recommend, “I’d like to finish my thought.”

Do speak directly in spite of the fact that you might get called down for it. Helgensen told a story about how a boss came up to her after a meeting and “in the most unhappy tone possible” said, “…boy, you sure speak your mind!” Helgensen replied, “Yes, I do.” About a month later she heard him tell someone, “…you know what I like about Sally? She really speaks her mind.” Given time, her boss got used to her way of speaking.

However, women who use less words are sometimes told they are too direct or scary. Amy Bernstein, one of the podcasters, suggested some alternative responses. I agreed with this one, “I know you are really busy and I’m trying to be thoughtful of your time, so I thought I‘d just get to the point.” But I disagree with this one because it’s too snarky to be worth the direct message, “You’re pretty easily scared, aren’t you?”

Using fewer words and choosing them carefully can help us get what we want and make the workplace more efficient. I’d love to hear arguments for and against these dos and don'ts in the comments section below.


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