And Your Point Is?

We live now in an economy where attention is the scarce commodity. The quicker we cut to the chase, the quicker others catch our meaning.

— Richard A. Lanhan1

We actuaries have a lot of information to convey to our clients and management. It is difficult to trim down such complex information, but we need to be cognizant of our recipients’ “word allotment” — a concept that I’ve been working on lately.

Word allotment is the number of words that your recipient will tolerate before deciding to continue with your communication, be it phone call, email or even in person. Word allotments vary by who is sending and who is receiving the communication, and whether it is oral or written, in person or otherwise.

For phone calls, my word allotment is about 10. That’s just long enough for the caller to say “Hi, I am Joe Blow calling from company xyz and…” before I decide to continue the call. Who delivers the message is a big determining factor of the word allotment. When I hear “Hi, grandpa” over the phone, my word allotment is only those two words, and I will stay on the line. When an unknown caller uses words such as “donate,” “vote” or “survey,” my word allotment quickly diminishes. You get the idea.

Timing is also an issue. My word allotment is greater when I am rested, lesser when I am tired or hassled. When the words are delivered also matters. If your listener is on the way to an important meeting, you should wait until she or he has a space of time to give you their full attention. When phoning, I always ask if this is a good time to talk for the same reason. I would rather call back than have the listener only give me a brief amount of partial attention. Early morning, just before quitting time and lunch time seem to be poor times to try to get your point across.

The environment is also important. Trying to discuss a confidential matter in a public place will certainly shorten your audience’s word allotment.

Word allotment definitely comes into play with some in-person meetings. When I tended a booth at a recent convention, I noticed that some of the people who stopped by had an extremely short word allotment — some had no allotment at all! The trick was for me to find something in common to talk about with a visitor and convey that within one or two sentences. Name badges enabled me to talk about the last time I was in their city or state, or that I wanted to visit and asked for what I should see there. It was challenging, but also a bit fun.

The same applies to emails. You want your readers to decide to continue to read the email within their word allotment — often what they can see on their phones or email screens without opening the document. With emails, the subject line can be your friend. Keep the message short enough so that all the important items can be seen in the reading pane. If you are a consultant, you want your signature line and logo to appear there as well, if possible. Longer items should be attachments.  The number of emails your recipient gets can also be a factor. I used to get 60 or 70 in a day as a chief actuary and know people who get hundreds a day, and that will shorten your recipient’s word allotment considerably.

I try to practice my word allotment concept every day. Effective communication conveys the pertinent information to another within their word allotment. The problem is that we may not have any idea what another person’s word allotment is, so it is best to underestimate rather than go long and be ignored.  If we endeavor to “cut to the chase” so that others can “catch our meaning,” we can be more successful communicators. ●

1 Paraphrased from The Longman Guide to Revising Prose, Pearson Longman 2006, p. vii.