Be quiet! Why designers talk too much.

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This tweet really stuck with me, kind of like a social media earworm. I can’t tell you how much I’ve seen and experienced (and done myself!) over the years. It’s made me come to this conclusion:

Designers should stop trying to show that they are the smartest person in the room. Design’s superpower is asking better questions. Yet put designers in client meetings and most will spend their times talking and explaining to clients their clever ideas, findings, and beliefs. So much talk, so little listening.

Many people believe that designers like explaining so much because they really, really want and need to convince clients of the depth, and truth and sheer brilliance of their ideas. The smartest person in the room syndrome. Design is one of those things that people claim NOT to understand. Many organizations act as if focusing on customers and citizens instead of internal assumptions seems counterintuitive instead of plain common sense. So, designers feel the need to not only bring customer experiences and needs to life, the feel the need to proselytize and evangelize design. Hallelujah!

Two things should give designers pause and encourage them to pipe down.

The first is something good designers should know already: you’ll never convince anyone to do something different by talking at them, unless they already want to do something different. That’s just human behavior 101 and if you don’t understand that, it’s time for some refresher courses.

As designers we learn to ask great questions and listen. It’s how we understand people. It’s how we develop great reframes that allow us to come up with innovative ideas. It’s how we test our prototypes. As designers, asking questions and listening is what we should do best.

The second is some new research I stumbled over. It turns out that talking is a drug. The more we talk and hear our own voice, the more we can’t stop talking. Mark Goulston, author of the book Just Listen explains: “…the process of talking about ourselves releases dopamine, the pleasure hormone. One of the reasons gabby people keep gabbing is because they become addicted to that pleasure.”

Wonder why that person in meetings can’t stop talking? It may be because he or she is really falling in love with their own voice. According to Goulston, you should set timers to stop talking after 20 or 40 seconds.

The great Swedish design firm Doberman created an app GenderEQ to monitor how much men spoke in meetings compared with women. Maybe they should add some features to track when it’s time to stop talking as well.

We do need to explain things, at the right time, when people are ready to pay attention. We call these times presentations or something similar. Even then, when we’re supposed to talk and explain, we also need to pause, ask questions and listen.

But at all of those other times when we’re meeting with clients, prospects or partners, we designers need to use the tools of our trade to keep asking great questions and listening more than we talk.

Because it’s more important to show that we’re the wisest person leaving the room than showing that we’re the smartest person in it.

Design Director and co-founder of Savvy Design Collaborative, design-driven entrepreneurship at YALI Dartmouth, VPR commentator, now playing in Sweden.

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