Talk Like Cave Man

When executives complain about a manager’s wordiness or failure to get to the point in meetings, they might say, “He thinks out loud.”
When a business leader hears you say something succinctly, she believes you’ve said it before, that you’ve thought it through and probably tested it already in conversation with others.

Thinking out loud, or verbal drafting, is essential preparation for any business meeting or presentation.

School prepares us to write out our ideas, to make outlines, to develop thoughts using external media like paper and pens and index cards and now screens and keyboards.  In an interesting paper, philosopher Jonathan Gilmore suggests that the incentives, constraints and risks involved in verbalizing thoughts in public are so immediate and urgent that they lead to systematically different “products.”  Or, as one coach puts it, we speak with a different part of the brain than we write with.

In my workshop on presenting proposals to executives, we do an exercise called “Cave Man.”  Here are the rules:

Using a total of twenty words or less answer aloud all of the following questions:

  • What is the executives’ starting point for this discussion?
  • What do you know that they don’t know?
  • What exactly are you proposing?
  • How will this benefit the business?

Speak telegraphically.  Use words as tags.  Gesture freely. Trust us to connect the dots.

“Cave Man” might sound like this —

E-mail marketing broken. 1% response bad. Piloted new messages, customers’ own words. 7% response! Expand! $2m new revenue.

— the sort of telegraphic speech that evokes Tarzan or the cave man of 1960s movies or modern-day insurance commercials.

“Cave Man” gives people the experience that Gilmore writes about.  They discover when they commit to a word or phrase, it comes out.  Sometimes what comes out is surprisingly clear and direct, maybe something you didn’t know you knew.  They also see that their arguments are not really streams of words but discrete beads that can be arranged with precision.  They become more articulate.

Thinking aloud is a great way to think. It’s just that you need to do your thinking before the meeting.

Verbal drafting surfaces fresh ideas, polishes them into economical expression and helps you internalize them so they’re at hand when you need them.