How long are you able to pay attention when someone starts monologuing?

How much do you enjoy listening to someone who talks too much?

But… Have you ever caught yourself talking too much?

One behavioral trait most modern humans share is that we stop listening when another person talks too much. Don’t you get distracted and start thinking about other things when someone babbles on in a monologue?

Whenever I discuss this in my workshops, audience members are virtually unanimous in their disgust with “monologuers.” Yet, most of these same people admit that they often fall into the monologue trap while doing their jobs.

Does it really matter? Is it possible that monologuing, while irritating, doesn’t really have an impact on business outcomes? Could monologing be like television commercials, a distracting nuisance, whose messages we ignore, but hardly enough of a reason to give up watching Project Runway?

I don’t think so. I believe it really matters. Relationship-building business encounters require genuine dialogue. If you are monologuing, you are not engaging your customer. He is spacing out. He’s thinking of something else. He’s not enjoying himself.

So, what do we do?

My brother, Phil Yastrow, sells very complex “application specific integrated circuits” for Avago Technologies, an HP spin-off, and he often has to explain highly complicated information to customers. Knowing that this is the kind of situation that can lead to excessive monologuing, Phil came up with a very useful toolcalled “The One-Paragraph Rule.”

Here’s how it works: When you are speaking with a customer, try never to speak more than one “paragraph’s worth” of information without a break. Just as a book has a short break between paragraphs, allow some space after each chunk of information that you deliver. This gives your customer a chance to say something, ask a question or absorb what you are saying. And, importantly, it gives you a chance to read your customer’s reactions.

The one-paragraph rule isn’t always easy to follow. We have a lot to say, and we’ve been trained to believe that sales and marketing are about telling our stories to customers. It takes a lot of discipline, not to mention a lot of “un-learning,” to stop talking.

But learning to use the one-paragraph rule is really worth it.

I remember my first experiences selling. I was a summer intern at MTI Vacations in Oak Brook, IL, between my two years of MBA study at Northwestern University’s J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management. After a few weeks on the job, I was on an airplane to Hawaii to sell advertising in MTI’s Hawaii vacation brochures. I had no idea what I was doing, and I used every sales call as a chance to present my case. I was totally focused on giving my pitch, and, after I gave it, I waited to hear the customer’s response. Needless to say, I didn’t do very well. (I actually did make some sales, but these were to companies who had something to gain from us, since we were bringing 65,000 people a year to Hawaii. In retrospect, they probably thought they had to buy an ad, or we wouldn’t give them business in return.) If only I had known about the one-paragraph rule.

Fast forward twenty years …

A few months ago I had a phone call with the owner of a company that was making a decision about hiring Yastrow & Company for a consulting project. I’d been dealing with the company’s president, and this was my first chance to speak with the owner. I knew I had to impress him, because he was going to play a role in the decision to hire our company.

As we started talking, it was clear that he was very eager to tell me about the company, and he began to relate some very interesting stories to me. After fifteen minutes, we still hadn’t talked about Yastrow & Company or my project proposal. I wasn’t worried about this, but I knew, based on what the company’s president had told me, that I had to communicate some key points during the call if I wanted the owner to support my proposal.

Finally, there was a chance for me to speak. Obeying the one-paragraph rule, I said a small bit of information that responded to what he’d been talking about, then paused to leave some space. It was tempting to disregard the rule, since I knew I had a lot more to communicate, but, as if Phil’s voice were in my ear coaching me, I stopped talking.

The owner jumped back in, taking this opportunity to speak for a few more minutes. When he stopped, I commented on what he said and paused, after which he talked some more. This lopsided back and forth went on for a while. I only spoke every few minutes, but I was very careful to ensure that I didn’t talk too long each time that I spoke, and that what I said was based on what he was saying.

As this was happening, I imagined myself twenty years ago. I would have been nervous, concerned that I was missing my opportunity to tell my story. I would have stored up all of the things I wanted to say, and I would have spit them all out at once as soon as I had a chance, as if to balance the score in the conversation. Fortunately, with age I’ve gained some patience and discipline. I knew that this conversation was going very well, even though I hadn’t said much. I knew that my goal wasn’t to tell him everything about me – my goal was to have a conversation with him that made him want to have more conversations with me.

The conversation did go well. Even though he didn’t hear all of my story, he felt good enough about the conversation to give a “thumbs-up” to the president, and Yastrow & Company won the project.

The one-paragraph rule is a tough rule to follow, but if you stick with it you’ll find it much easier to ditch the pitch and engage your customers.

(Since this newsletter has 18 paragraphs, please come and contribute your comments!)


  • Phil Yastrow
    Oct 05, 2010 - 15:53 pm

    I am honored! Glad it made me think to stop talking for a few minutes!!!! The one paragraph rule really does work. If the person you are talking to can’t respond to one paragraph, they are likely bored and you should just shut up.

  • David Porter
    Oct 06, 2010 - 06:54 am

    It’s said that the magic in music lies in the space between the notes. Perhaps the same can be said about influence – meaningful change only happens in the spaces. Profound piece, Steve. Thanks.

  • Steve Yastrow
    Oct 07, 2010 - 07:19 am

    Thank you David and Phil.

    Maybe the meaningful change that happens in the spaces in when your customer really takes in what you are saying.

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