We talk a lot about how to give a great speech, and about the words you might be using incorrectly. However, sometimes the biggest problem with what you're saying is that you've chosen to speak in the first place.
Here are 17 times when nothing you can say will improve the situation--so you're much better off saying nothing at all.
(I'm sure I've missed some other great examples. Please email me and let me know which ones you think we should include in a future column.)
1. When technology isn't working.
This one is such a pet peeve for me that I'll put it first. Have you ever had to endure someone's lecture or speech when the microphone isn't working or the lights aren't effective--and yet they continue anyway? Don't be that guy. Call off the speech. Reschedule it or find another way to get everyone the information afterward.
2. When you're losing the audience.
Sometimes the microphone doesn't work. Sometimes your remarks themselves just don't work. You can tell when you're losing an audience (provided you pay attention). If you can't get them back, the smart move is usually to find a way to wrap things up quickly.
3. When the other side misunderstands.
A few years ago, I sold a car and forgot to turn in the license plates, not realizing this triggered a giant fine. At the DMV, thankfully, the clerk incorrectly read the date on the bill of sale, and voided the fine. Lesson: You don't always have the obligation to correct everyone else's misunderstandings.
4. When you've asked a question.
When you ask a question, usually you want to wait for the answer. Otherwise it seems that the only reason you asked was to provide an additional chance for you to talk. Granted, sometimes that might be intentional, but if it's not, show a little restraint. Be quiet, and listen.
5. When silence is a strategy.
Sometimes you simply achieve more by saying nothing. Maybe others will offer things they otherwise wouldn't, or else they'll provide you with information that they'd hold close if they didn't feel obligated to fill the silence. Either way, keeping quiet can be your best course of action.
6. When silence is a tactic.
Without splitting hairs, sometimes you can use silence tactically, too. For example, suppose you're in a negotiation and the other side basically revises its position in your favor without your even saying anything. Don't make it easier for them. Let them give into the awkwardness and speak first.
7. When you can only make things worse.
Truly, there are times when you your remarks aren't helping. Suppose you get a great assignment at work--but as part of the deal you have to explain to someone who wanted it even more to you that they didn't get it. Keep it short and sweet; there's little you can say that will make them feel better.
8. When others need to speak.
Sometimes other people simply have more important things to say; sometimes they simply need the confidence-building experience of being heard. Be a real leader in these circumstances, and keep quiet so others can have their say when they need it.
9. When you can tell you'll regret it later.
Maybe you're angry; maybe you're annoyed. Regardless, we all have moments when we know we're going to say something we'll regret. So don't.
10. When your silence itself speaks volumes.
You can send a very potent message sometimes by sending no message at all. In some cases this can seem like passive aggression to be sure, but other times the lack of a word to the wise should be sufficient.
11. When words are just plain awkward.
Think back to high school. Maybe someone you considered a good friend told you he or she had romantic feelings that you totally didn't reciprocate. (Maybe you were the one doing the telling; I'm trying to make this a more supportive example.) There's little you can say to make things better, and things would just get awkward. So instead, you learn to say nothing.
12. When you're full of BS.
It's happened to most of us: The spotlight is on you, yet you feel unprepared and unconfident. You realize you don't actually know what you're talking about. You're tempted to drive on and fill the silence. Sometimes, you have no choice, but when you can, have mercy on your audience by saying as little as possible.
13. When you'll sound like a know-it-all.
Most people appreciate well-meaning good advice. However, there's no easier way to make yourself look and sound unprofessional than to seize every opportunity to show how much you know. (Bonus negative points if you're not even right!)
14. When someone else says it better.
I write a lot, and I've made a living with words for many years. However, I recognize that there are many better communicators out there. Sometimes we're all better off simply letting others articulate their thoughts.
15. When you're basically saying, "I told you so."
Have these four words ever made anyone feel better about anything? All you're doing in this instance is adding Monday-morning quarterbacking to what is presumedly a bad situation. Better to keep your mouth shut. If you were right, the other person probably already knows it.
16. When you're prone to puffery.
Here's an embarrassing example. I was at lunch with colleagues, and one of us was talking about her experience running a 5K race. When she finished, for some reason I decided to bring up the fact that I've run a bunch of marathons--the most recent of which was a decade ago. Worse, I just sounded like I was playing a game of one-upmanship. I was a little embarrassed--so don't follow my example!
17. When you want someone to figure things out.
I went to law school (and I'm still trying to figure out whether that was a good idea or not). However, one thing I learned was how to teach using the Socratic method--meaning basically that rather than provide answers, you ask questions. Sometimes you and the people you're talking with can both gain more if they find the answer themselves, without your simply reciting it.