Dan Lyons has a problem a lot of us have. He talks too much.
He knows it. He’s blown jobs and relationships, and annoyed a lot of people in his time because of his mouth. He’s also made a good living off of it, working as a journalist (Forbes, Newsweek) and a comedy writer (for HBO’s Silicon Valley) but when it came to other parts of his life, it was, as he says now, “a challenge” (full disclosure—we worked together for years, and I found him more brilliant and hilarious than annoying, but that’s me).
His self-diagnosed talkaholism led Lyons, author of a number of best-selling books, including Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble and Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest Of Us, to his latest book, STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in a World That Won’t Stop Talking.
Working on STFU made him realize just how much noise we create. In meetings, online and in our personal lives, our inability to sit quietly or listen to others has become an epidemic. Driven by social media, we’re in what he calls “The Age of Agitation,” where trillions of birthday greetings, angry political polemics and photos of dinner are transmuted into gold by Silicon Valley’s attention-gratification engine.
It isn’t just Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. According to Lyons’ research, there are more than two million podcasts online now, with more than 48 million episodes, but more than half of them have been downloaded fewer than 26 times. A McKinsey study found workers spending 28 percent of their day with email—writing, responding, writing, responding—as one of the great productivity tools of the last 100 years morphs into a productivity suck.
“There are more than a billion meetings that Americans have every year,” says Lyons. “Half are said by the people who are in them to be a complete waste of time. So, you have this phenomenon where people are just talking for the sake of talking and tweeting for the sake of tweeting.”
For CEOs, there are additional problems—and risks—says Lyons. The push to be “more authentic” and “transparent” and communicate is backfiring for many. Faced with issues from remote work to political correctness to the economy, too many leaders, says Lyons, are goaded into reflexive “all hands” meetings, for instance.
“The slides will be loaded with information, and we’ll spend an hour just telling everybody in the company what we’re doing,” says Lyons. “Really they should take half of the time. They should share way less, abstract it to a few big points, and then spend half the time listening, taking questions. Look at the debate over return to office. Both sides are just talking across each other, talking at each other, and not hearing each other.”
In an environment like this, Lyons says, becoming quieter—and also a better listener—will not only make you happier, it will also make you more productive (and even more powerful). How do you get there? Lyons shared a few tips with Chief Executive:
Benchmark Your Talking
To start, get data on how you interact with others, especially in meetings. A great way to do this is to record a session and then have it transcribed, using an online service like Temi, or others.
Then highlight your speaking versus everyone else’s. It’s an easy way to visualize what you’re saying—and how much you’re saying. “Once you see it, you cannot unsee it,” says Lyons.
Another way, if you can bear it, is to videotape your meetings and rewatch them. If you start to squirm, it’s time to take a step back and let other people talk.
Lyons interviewed Dhiraj Rajaram, who runs a big data analytics company called Mu Sigma in India. Rajaram recommends that his employees get up from their desks at least twice a day, at 10:30 and 2:30, and spend 30 minutes in silence. “You don’t have to meditate, but just no screen, go for a walk, whatever. Just chill for 30 minutes,” says Lyons. “His theory was, ‘Yes, you’re losing an hour of productivity, but you’re actually going to be more productive in the other hours, and it really sparks creativity.’”
In Japan, many overstressed executives find solace in “forest bathing”—basically a slow, media-free wander in the woods—and have seen substantial increases in both physical health and mental health as a result. The idea stems from a government program aimed at reducing heart attacks and other stress-related illnesses. Studies found that not only did the program lower blood pressure and improve sleep, but it also increased the body’s production of cancer-fighting cells.
“The whole point is, you don’t do a lot,” says Lyons. “You don’t go hike really fast and see how many miles you can cover, or how many feet you can climb. You do the opposite. You barely go anywhere. You start tuning into trees and sounds, and you look around. I found it really enjoyable—and helpful.”
Grow Your Listening
The most successful CEOs are practiced listeners, able to ask the right questions and settle in to hear out the response. Still, there is always work to be done. Lyons quotes Tom Peters, best-selling author of In Search of Excellence, as saying that if you are not “completely wiped out” after 30 minutes of active listening, “you’re not doing it right.”
To work on this essential skill, Lyons interviewed legendary Silicon Valley executive coach Jerry Colonna. A big part of Colonna’s work is making the Valley’s notoriously talky founders and CEOs into better listeners. How? One exercise is to sit with someone else with three questions for the other person. “You go first, you answer those three questions, and I don’t talk at all,” says Lyons. “I just listen. Even if I want to jump in, or I want to say, ‘Oh, Dan, that same thing happened to me.’ Just force yourself to listen. And then we switch and take turns.”
If you answer your questions in less than five minutes, you both must sit in silence for the remainder of the five minutes. “So, five minutes are up, then I answer, and same deal, but then we take five or 10 minutes and we talk about what was it like to listen. What did you hear? What did I hear when you were talking, and was that the same as what you were trying to convey? Did I really understand it?”
In another, more extreme session, interview someone for 30 minutes without taking any notes. When the person leaves, write down everything you remember from the conversation. “Then go talk to the person who talked to you and say, ‘This is what I remember.’ Two things happen: One is you remember things incorrectly. You obviously remember a lot of things correctly. But the other thing is, often you missed the most important nuggets from what that person was telling you… Most people are terrible at it, but over time, you can get better.”
Given the technology-driven world we’re in, perhaps the most important place—and in many ways the most difficult place—to work on quieting is online. Lyons’s advice: Just shut it the f*&k off. “Ask yourself why you are online in the first place. What are you hoping to get from it? And are you getting it?” Lyons writes in his book. “Our phones are FOMO devices, a way to make sure we never miss out on anything. It’s significant that the first word in the acronym FOMO is fear. We believe that our phones will address that fear. We clutch them like security blankets. We use them to soothe ourselves, even though, ironically, they are the exact opposite of soothing. They are agitation devices, little battery-powered fear machines.
“We talk about the Internet and information overload as if we’re helpless against them, as if they were something happening to us rather than a choice we are making. The noise will never go away,” writes Lyons. “But we can.”
Finally, Just Say Less
If you really want to get people’s attention—and you really want to become a more powerful communicator—or just more powerful—Lyons’s advice is simple: Say less. A lot less. Marketing guru Guy Kawasaki, for instance, says the perfect email contains five sentences, according to Lyons. “It’s okay to use fewer, but never use more. Writing long emails wrecks your productivity and burdens the recipient.”
An extreme version of that is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s “Question Mark Method.” If someone inside or outside the company emails him with a complaint, Bezos forwards the message to the person responsible, adding just a single character: “?” “People live in fear of getting one of these emails from their notoriously demanding boss.”
Lyons’s favorite example of a corporate leader saying much, much more by saying far, far less is Apple founder Steve Jobs. “Watch Steve Jobs do the introduction to the iPhone,” says Lyons. “It’s easy to find it on YouTube. And watch how he uses silence when he walks on stage. It is mind-blowing to see how everybody is leaning forward in their chair. You cannot look away.”
That leads to his biggest takeaway for CEOs: “Silence is power, silence is confidence, and it’s polite. If you combine it with listening, you’re drawing people in, you’re making them feel seen and heard, and you’re bringing out the best in the people that you’re leading.”