by Steve Adubato, PhD

Consider a social gathering last spring. Everyone is having a great time casually interacting with people they haven’t seen in awhile. They also are meeting new friends. There is also a prominent local municipal councilwoman at the reception who was invited as a special guest by the party’s host. Just as the party was in full swing, the councilwoman informed the couple hosting the reception that she would like to make a few “informal remarks” to the gathering or an “informal forum” as she referred to. The host agreed thinking it would be a great opportunity for the councilwoman to respond to questions and concerns people might have about taxes, garbage pick-up, etc. Pretty harmless, you would think, but think again.

The councilwoman went on for about thirty minutes, delving into intricate detail about the history of municipal government and the relationship between the town council and other levels of government. She detailed virtually every municipal department. It was informative but it was also a bit painful. People began to squirm, some were looking for a way out and the hosts were perplexed as to how to stop this runaway communication train.

Finally, the councilwoman ended her lecture and asked for questions. Yet, much of the steam had been taken out of the crowd. There were some questions, followed by really long, detailed answers. It was a potentially great evening adversely affected by another long-winded communicator who just didn’t seem to get it.

Some questions to consider:

Q—How could the councilwoman not see that she was losing the crowd?

A—Easy. With all the best intentions, she got too caught up in what she wanted to say to be aware of others. It is a common communication problem. Speakers ignore the body language of their audience. They can’t hear the grumbling, the throat clearing, the moving closer to the exits. They get too caught up with the sound of their own voice to really listen.

Q—But once a communicator goes off like this, what if anything can the hosts do to stop it?

A—Not much. Looking back, they could have approached the councilwoman in response to her request to speak and said, “We think it’s great that you want to talk about town issues. But since this is a social gathering, could you speak for two, maximum three, minutes and then take questions? Will that work for you?” No guarantee of the outcome, but at least you’ve set some communication parameters. However, once the speaker is off to the races, it is nearly impossible to stop her. The only option is to wait for a brief pause or breath and assertively move closer to her and say, “Councilman Jones, we really appreciate you taking this time to provide so much background, but it would be great if we could take some questions.” Don’t ask if it is okay. Just do it. Sure, it takes nerve and confidence, but the alternative might be worse.

Q—Are saying if you are hosting any type of an event or reception you shouldn’t give up control of the communication to anyone—even a special guest who has been invited?

A—That’s about right. You didn’t invite them to ruin a good time, you invited them to engage and participate. It’s your event, not their event. Too many event planners, be they professionals or not, miss this important fact and often realize once it is too late that the communication train has derailed and it is nearly impossible to get back on track. It’s better to face that potentially uncomfortable or difficult conversation up front than spend your time apologizing after the fact.