Open Mouth, Insert Foot: The Best Times to Keep Your Mouth Shut

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”


-Mark Twain


I don’t care if you’re in a business meeting, making a sales call, speaking with an employee or to your spouse or child,  we’ve all done it:  provided gobs of information that led nowhere when a simple response was all that was needed.


Tell me, did you want to kick yourself?  Did you realize you should have kept your mouth shut? I know I did.   While your family may is forgiving, in the business world, especially these days, running off at the mouth can be the difference between success and failure. I’ll tell you why.


We’re the products of information overload.  Pure and simple. Not only can we find any information we want on the web, but we’re bombarded by emails by virtually every site we visit.  Do we really need to know everything? Do we have the time and patience to listen when someone runs off at the mouth, or do we just tune out when we realize he’s going off track, misses the point or just likes to hear himself talk?


Joseph McCormack, author of ‘BRIEF: Making a Bigger Impact by Saying Less,’  explains that the human brain can only handle a fraction of the words it hears before tuning out.  Being long winded can actually cost us a lot of business simply because we haven’t learned to edit our conversations both verbal and written.


It’s a valid point. What impression do we give others (and what impression do we have of others) who haven’t yet realized that in business, less has far more impact than more?


  • Whether it’s true or not, people who tend to be long-winded, give the impression of being unprepared and  grasping for words, while they’re thinking of the correct response.
  • Whether it’s true or not, we believe people who talk too much just like to prove how smart they are.
  • Most importantly though, even though our words may be absolutely true, when we talk too much we leave room for doubt.


I agree that most of us are generally underprepared for meetings we have, and emails we need to get out.  We’re busy, generally multi-tasking and for the most part rely on our ability to ‘wing it’ – especially in situations where we know the other participants.  In his book, McCormack suggests mind-mapping techniques to help people organize their thoughts quickly and succinctly and it’s worth a read.


How do we know it’s time to shut up?  Pay attention to these triggers:


  1. When the person you’re meeting with starts thinking out loud.  You know the type.  He tends to ask questions and then proceeds to have a debate with himself as part of his ‘rationalization’ process.
  2. When they continually turn the conversation back to themselves.  (You don’t need to say a word – they already have all the answers).
  3. When you catch yourself  turning the conversation back to you.
  4. When someone is sharing an idea, don’t try to one-up them.
  5. Don’t steal the spotlight. As Andy Warhol said, everyone deserves their ’15 minutes of fame.’
  6. When someone is looking for a solution, help them learn –  don’t give them the answer.
  7. When you get the feeling you’ve said enough.  Listen to your inner voice.  You probably have.
  8. When you realize you haven’t a clue what you were talking about.  (Have you ever caught yourself thinking, I have no idea why I’m saying this)?


You can start editing yourself quite simply: focus on outcome and results first, before getting into the explanations.  You’ll find that sometimes an explanation isn’t needed at all.


Look for simple solutions and don’t overcomplicate.  Clarity and brevity go hand in hand.


There’s an unverified story that Ernest Hemingway and a bunch of other writers were lunching at the Algonquin one day. Hemingway boasted that he could write a short story using only 6 words.  It would have a beginning, a middle and an end.  When everyone balked and told him it was impossible, he had everyone ante up $10.  Hemingway wrote:


‘For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.’




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