How to Tell If You’re Talking Too Much

Dan Richards

Are you talking too much? Research shows that your audience’s attention spans is as short as 20 seconds, so for many advisors the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

During a recent outing with my bicycling group, a new member who’s a partner in a top corporate law firm talked about his experience with financial advisors. “I’ve worked with three different advisors over the years,” he said. “They were all smart and capable and, generally, I’ve had a good experience with them. But the one thing that always bugged me was that they all spent way too much time talking and not enough listening.”

That sentiment is far from unique.

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Because I have a regular column in the major newspaper in the city where I make my home, it’s quite common when I first meet someone for them to recognize me and then talk their experience investing. One of the first questions I ask when a casual acquaintance raises the topic of investing is about their experience with financial advisors.

While I get a broad range of answers, some themes are common. Among the most frequent responses: “My advisor does a great job of listening” and, “She really understands my situation.”

By contrast, I almost never get responses like, “My advisor does a terrific job of explaining complex concepts.”

That’s why in a previous article, Five Steps to High Impact Meetings, I discussed the 50-50 rule: To impress clients in meetings, the more questions you ask the better. For every 50 words you say, clients should say at least 50.

Green light, yellow light, red light

It’s not just how much time you spend talking during a meeting that matters, but also how long you talk each time you speak. Psychiatrist Mark Goulston is the author of the book Just Listen. In his Harvard Business Review article, How To Know If You Talk Too Much, he used the analogy of a traffic light to describe conversations. When the light is green, you have your audience’s complete attention. When it’s yellow, their attention has started to wander. And when it’s red, they’ve stopped listening.

Here’s what’s really scary.

Goulston said that for impatient Type A personalities, the light can be green and you’ll have their full attention for as little as 20 seconds. While using visual aids can increase attention spans, most advisors would still benefit from shortening their answers, using a minute as a rule of thumb.

Of course, 20 seconds is an extreme case for the most attention-challenged clients. But even if we triple this, we end up with 60 seconds.