Verbal Oatmeal

At the age of 12 I had become an incessant chatterbox, often to the irritation of my dad, Chubby.

One Sunday afternoon in 1960 I was in Dad’s home office fumbling with some of the gadgets on his desk, rambling on about my Heathkit Ham radio. 

Chubby was quiet and focused, pensively writing real estate ads. Suddenly, with an absence of emotion and without looking up, he said, “No oatmeal.”

Was he hungry? Did Mom forget to pick up oatmeal?

Whatever his point, I disregarded the comment and continued to blather. 

At that point Chubby looked up, took off his glasses and reprimanded, “No oatmeal!”

Again with the oatmeal? Was Pop off his rocker?

Then he said, “Greg, you’re driving me nuts. Stop babbling. Say it with brevity or don’t say it at all.”

He continued, “If you can’t say it with brevity you don’t know it with clarity. It’s verbal oatmeal.” 

Wow, I thought. Pretty harsh. Remember, I was just 12.

Chubby then reached across his desk and grabbed a small hourglass paperweight.

“This is a one minute timer,” he said. “For twenty minutes you’ve been going on and on about your new ham radio. When I turn the hourglass over you’ve got one minute to explain why a ham radio can transmit waves around the world when a normal radio can’t. Go.” 

My mind went numb. I stammered through a choppy explanation. I didn’t have a clear understanding, so I couldn’t give a clear explanation.

No clarity = No brevity = Verbal oatmeal. 

How often has your mind wandered while someone was talking to you? They drone on and on saying the same thing repeatedly. It’s verbal oatmeal.  

Verbal oatmeal causes our minds to wander. Boredom ensues. We mentally mute out. Often, we interrupt them to get them to stop. 

Do you spew verbal oatmeal too? Here are a few tips from for being crisp, concise, and compelling in your conversations:

Think Before You Speak. Chubby used to say, “Never pick up the phone or walk into a meeting without knowing precisely what you want to say (and accomplish) through the conversation.”

Be Succinct. Make your points with as few words as possible. Avoid using complicated words, run on sentences, and irrelevant information.

Gauge Your Audience. Not everyone has the same knowledge or background as you. Sometimes you will need to “dumb it down” to ensure you can be easily understood by your listeners.

Friendly Versus Formal. You wouldn’t speak to an executive at your company the same way you would speak to a close friend or family member. Knowing when to clean it up or slang it down is key to speaking the right “dialect” with different people.

Tailor Your Tone. People are drawn to voices that sound like theirs. If the person you are talking to is soft spoken, emulate that, and vice versa. This is why people naturally use a softer, slower tone when speaking to toddlers. 

Use Inflection. Emphasize important points by increasing your volume. This technique focuses attention on the key details of what you are explaining.

Speak With Confidence. If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, they won’t either. Establish credibility and authority by avoiding hesitation, minimizing vocal tics, and maintaining eye contact.

Those seven tips can be summed up as follows: 

Brief and brilliant beats big and bloated.

Too many people talk too much and say too little. 

It’s verbal oatmeal.