Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

How the Law of Diminishing Returns Works with Communication

The more you talk, the less people listen. The more noise you make, the more it sounds like a drone. This is an economic principle, and it applies to communication, too.

Cell Phone Photo

Photo credit: Johan Larsson

The paradox of attention is this: the more you try to get, the less attentive your audience becomes. So talk less. Be comfortable with silence. And listen more. Make your message matter by only speaking up when you have something really important to say.

Or maybe consider the alternative. Develop an asset that gives you permission to speak whenever you like, so that when you do, people pay attention.

This is important if you’re going to say anything worth hearing. It’s going to take time and work and focus. And it all begins with you.

Size and dignity

Larger audiences shouldn’t mean less attention. Don’t treat your audience as an auditorium. Treat it for what it is: people. Treasure those relationships. Love them. Serve them. Help them.

There is a reason why campaigning politicians visit small towns and shake individuals’ hands and kiss babies. It works. In fact, this is the only way to earn real influence: meeting people in person and building a relationship. Everything else is just a farce.

Losing our humanity

In our world of constant connectivity where we literally have access to thousands of relationships a day, we need to be careful. Because we are in danger of losing the very thing that earned us those relationships in the first place.

This is the secret to success as a performer, artist, and creative: Never lose your humanity. And this is what is missing on our world. People treating other people like human beings. Whether you have an audience of three or thousand, treat each person as just that: a person.

When it comes to communication in our world today, we need more dignity. Not more noisy marketing. In fact, the best marketers are already doing this; they’re returning to their humanity by finding ways to connect in an authentic, personal way.

If you want to make a difference with your words, you should do the same.

The quiet kid in school

I had a friend in college who was brilliant. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and with just about every other honor you can imagine. But the interesting thing about him was he rarely spoke up in class.

His name was Seth, and he was one of the shiest guys you would ever meet. I, on the other hand, was not. We took a lot of the same classes, and I was the one usually blabbing about some strong opinion I had that was usually wrong.

Every once in awhile, though, Seth would break into the discussion with something that would stun us all into silence, including the professor. It took me years to understand, but Seth grasped a concept that I am still struggling with:

If you are going to speak, make it count.

Two ways to communicate

At the end of the day, there are two ways to do this:

  • Do what I did: talk a lot and hope something intelligible comes out.
  • Do what Seth did: listen, think, and reflect. Then speak with power and conviction.

I’m not saying one is necessarily better than the other, but you need to be aware of what you’re doing — the messages you’re communicating and the cost associated with them.

Because people will only listen to you blab for so long. And pretty soon, if you don’t know what you’re talking about (and even sometimes if you do), they’ll just start tuning you out.

How have you experienced the law of diminishing returns in communication? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Wow! 

    What a thing to read on the day I actually started pod casting my blog! LOL! 

    I will print this out and keep it in front of me at all times! 

    Man Jeff- it is like you are in my head- I know… you are my Jiminy Cricket! Good job so far! LOL! 

    •  Awesome Dayna! I’ve heard podcasting is the brave, new frontier. Have fun with it.

    •  give a little whistle!

  • Jerene

    Good reminder Jeff.  I also longed to be the quiet kid in class.  Alas, I was usually sent to the principal’s office for what else…talking too much.  He usually sent me right back to class because he couldn’t stand the chatter.  Good times!

  • That was great, really close to home too, as I used to be one of those shy kids in class. The only problem I found is that the less you say, the more professors ask to to speak, especially when you don’t know the answer…

    •  Right, Josh. You do have to still know what you’re talking about — for when you DO speak.

  • I had a friend in elementary and middle school who probably only spoke 100 words total in the 8 years I knew him. But he was bright, and a great soccer player. Anytime he spoke, he commanded attention.

    •  I strive to be that kind of communicator; I still have a long way to go.

      • We all have different styles though, right? Not everyone can listen 99% and talk 1% of the time. That would be a pretty boring place IMO.

        •  Hmmm… food for thought. I think listening gives you opportunity to speak. What IF we tried listening 99% of the time? Or at least waited to be asked before offering our opinions? I’m just thinking out loud.

          • As a good extrovert does (think out loud that is)! Extroverts can certainly learn about listening skills and their value from the introverts in our lives. 

  • My son is such a Seth. His chatterbox older sister is still incensed by how quickly he built a powerful reputation when he arrived at “her” college by listening and speaking only when he had something worthwhile to say!  

  • So appreciate this. I have a question, though. When trying to engage in conversations on blogs such as this, I often feel pressure to come up with my response sooner versus later. As someone who likes to take time to think about things, I find once I am ready to say something of value the conversation is over. 

    What do you have to say about the tension between saying something that matters and saying something quick enough to engage in the current conversation?

    • Great point, Rebecca. Tough question. The short answer: I don’t know. The longer answer: Trust your gut and the people who hold you accountable. Those two things — intuition/conscience and feedback — guide me thru most decisions.

  • Okay, that’s just funny.  I was looking through my Twitter feed for whatever you’d posted and had to scroll down through dozens of posts by the same few people.  I was getting kinda worried.  “Where’s Jeff?!  Didn’t he write today?!  And why does this one guy post 7 articles at a time?!”  

  • This is something I’m working on as well — especially in the heat of a strong discussion, I tend to speak on impulse, and midway, I catch myself realizing that I should have given my opinion some more thought. This is definitely a skill that we must master because communication, more than ever, and clear communication at that, is so vital in this world, written or spoken.

    Great post my man

  • Great post. As a teacher, I’ve encountered countless Seths. It’s always a beautiful thing to find that diamond in the rough. It just makes me want to pull them aside and say, “Why didn’t you TELL me you were brilliant?!” 🙂

    As a writer, I do struggle with this concept. It’s hard to find that fine line between being present and being hyper-active when you haven’t really developed a steady audience yet.

    Thanks Jeff!

  • I’ve often heard that the best writers are older people who have experienced life. People who, no matter what they are talking about, have had the time to know what they are talking about. They aren’t wasting words.

    One of my largest concerns, as a twenty-something writer, is that I will end up either babbling trying to come up with content or stay quiet too long (and not attract an audience) because I don’t feel what I have to say is good enough. Is there a better side to err on?

  • I think older people, like my grandpa, were better at this than we are now.  When he said something, we listened.  We wanted to know what he had to say.  Evidently, it was important if he was willing to talk about it.

  • Ha, I’m somewhere in between, but leaning towards those who speak less. People use to come to me with their problems and comment what a great listener I am. When I want to say something, I need that thing to be right and proper, although you can get blocked by thinking that what you have to say isn’t good enough. 

    But, yes – never forget your humanity. This is a very important thing in today’s world of mass marketing and data overflow. Show humility, tend to produce useful content and those who can appreciate will support you. 

  • Ha, I’m somewhere in between, but leaning towards those who speak less. People use to come to me with their problems and comment what a great listener I am. When I want to say something, I need that thing to be right and proper, although you can get blocked by thinking that what you have to say isn’t good enough. 

    But, yes – never forget your humanity. This is a very important thing in today’s world of mass marketing and data overflow. Show humility, tend to produce useful content and those who can appreciate will support you. 

  • Scrollwork

    I’m a quiet person. I speak when I have something of value to say, and this applies to my blog as well. There is so much more opportunity to learn when we listen, and listening is best developed when we are comfortable with being silent.

    However, I read a study a long time ago that women in business meetings tend not to speak up as much as men. When women do speak up, it is in an apologetic rather than authoritative tone. Such a manner of communication (rare as well as tentative) invites the boisterous (predominantly male) communicator to swoop in and claim credit for any legit idea that the more timid communicator offers, the study found.

    Unfortunately, many people are attracted to the bombastic speaker. Rarely will anyone give the floor back to the interrupted speaker.

    So while it’s true that we tend to tune out the jabberer, we also tend to overlook the Seths—unless we keenly listen.


  • Love This!

  • Jamie Yost

    Jeff, I cannot agree with you more. I just recently started using Twitter and I’m often astounded by the people who tweet twenty times in a row or twice every fifteen minutes, like clockwork. As the old adage goes, always leave them wanting more. If you’re tweeting (or Facebooking, or commenting, or whatever) your face off, you’re not giving people a chance to miss you. Thanks for such a timely and clever post!

  • I am much more likely to pay attention, reflect and then respond.  I am an introvert.  Gabbiness tires me out.;) I also try to respond in a concise but well-put manner.  No long, verbose answer that everyone stops listening to after the first sentence.  Same thing with email responses. 

    •  Love that. I do the same with email.

  • I love this. I get really tired of writers wanting to know how many times a day they can tell people about their book. My answer? Never. If we listen and serve it is so unique and rare that people will eventually want to find out about us…and then they will see our books. I probably talk to much, but I use my words to serve, encourage, uplift, edify and inspire, not just fill space or draw attention to myself (though, sadly I did do too much of that for far too long).

    Thanks for the wonderful post! Passing it along. 

  • Hahahaha! Touché my friend…lol.

  • Reminds me of a quote from Rumi: “Silence is an ocean. Speech is a river. When the ocean is searching for you, don’t walk into the language-river. Listen to the ocean, and bring your talky business to an end.”

    •  Interesting. My head is now spinning. 🙂

  • “The more you talk, the less people listen.” This is why I often unsubscribe to a blog as soon as the writer starts posting every day. I (generally) can’t keep up with someone who writes so much!

    • lol, i believe jeff writes every day?

      But he always has something worthwhile to say!

      i hear you on every-day blogging..you really must have something very good to say to capture my attention DAILY.

      •  Hah! Oops. My point here was not how much you write, but taking the time to consider how important what you’re saying is.

  • This is a great reminder for all extroverts!

    I agree with you, the bottom line is to always (or as much as humanly possible anyway) have something worthwhile to say – whether you are an introvert or extrovert. 

    It’s about courage and keeping balance, regardless of your personality. 

    Great post today, as always.

  • Anna

    I’m Italian and I talk very much, maybe is it my origin that causes this “problem”?

    I don’t know, but I’m also a good listener.

    Today, however, after this post, I think I will work on my ability to listener and I will
    check the changes.

    Thanks for the advices

  • I think this is an even more important principle today where there is no shortage of information and people shouting from the roof tops. When you write or speak, you’re essentially asking people to give of their precious attention. What you say better be worth their while.

  • Jeff. 100% on this blog. Last year an associate was able to help me understand this very concept. After 4 decades of styling individuals for the camera, including motion pictures, television and print; returning to the work force following 9 years out of it due to being a Mr. Mom, I thought telling everyone about what I have done, to get work was a guarantee. It tickled many ears, but consistently,  he would share how his generation didn’t know some of the name I mentioned, so listening would give me a better opportunity to gain clients. When I began to “Seth” it, my countenance changed and the interpersonal communications did a 360% turnaround. As you know in the short time we have communicated, I have gone from writing 13K+ to now preparing for a meeting with a literary agent and a ghost writer on Monday, in Atlanta.

    Each time I read your writings, it is a wonderful expression of clear thought and good direction.  Your outlook and ability to encourage those who desire to write with your skill of communicating deserves an A+ in my book. Much appreciation to you. thx. M

    •  Congrats, Michael! Exciting opportunities coming your way. 🙂

  • I came to you from lisagobrien’s log.  Really glad she led me to you. 

    I like Seth’s style, but I’ve read that people who blog every day generally have more visits and followers.  If that’s true, what would be a happy medium for me?  I’m at about 4 to 5 times a week now, but that’s because I’m between jobs and have more time to think things through.


    •  Dave, I think the “formula” is consistency plus quality. If you can do 10 okay articles a week or five really good ones, write five. However, if all you’re doing is one a month, that may limit your reach. These days, though, quantity is less important the quality. There’s too much noise now for the mediocre stuff to matter.

  • When I took my first writing class in college, I would churn out these tombs of assignments. From my perspective, it seemed that the longer the work was the more there was to grade. My teacher would tell me how I needed to go back and start taking the scaffolding out of my work to see what it was underneath. After doing this like three times, I decided to call it sending my work to “fat camp.”

    Later, when I was taking my last course in college, my assignments were drastically shorter. I learned the impact of things said well, succinctly. Honestly, I find it hard to listen to someone who says something really simple in a lot of words, but when someone says something complicated in few, I want them to keep talking. 

    To me, art is something that is said in the best way possible. Most times, I find that the means to doing this is found through patient listening. In other words, the hard way. 

    •  “Tombs” or “tomes”? Freudian slip? 😉

  • My hearing aid dependent husband is so worth listening to. He uses few words and misses many of others words (which is at times good) but when he speaks it is meaningful. I have learned to enjoy reading to him. Face to face time. We laugh, think, challenge, explore, together. We share learning and I speak less of my own wasted words. 
    Thanks for these words.

  • Very intriguing thoughts here Jeff–thanks for this.

  • As one known to blab…this post was a good reminder

  • Hey Jeff, have you seen the TED talk on intorverts? Some of the most brilliant minds are/were introverts. Sounds like Seth was on of them, too. 🙂 

  • Good post on communication, Jeff. While each one of us have different styles, it’s beneficial to learn better ways of communication for better results. And, as you said, it should have a ‘human’ touch too. 

  • Blaze Arizanov

    Excellent post Jeff…. keep on with the bright glimpses…

  • I guess that’s why saying less is saying more:) Would be great to meet you in person one day!

  • littlelubbe05

    This is a great post for any developed or seasoned relationship, especially marriages. 🙂 Reminds me of the comments my teachers in elementary school would make when students would attempt to answer a question. She’d pick the quiet, patient child sitting in the back who wasn’t jumping out of their seat with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is great, but in moderation. Thank you for connecting one of my favorite college tried and true principals back to my current life. (Econ major for life!)

  • Great words.  The more I write, the more introspective I have become and now in order to process something I need to write it out.  Because most of my writing is done in blog form these days, I like to write out what I am working through in blog form.  And then I think, well I guess I should publish it now.  When in fact I need to step back and consider if this really is blog material or a place to type out my thoughts.  I feel like as I go through certain things I want to talk about it over and over.  But like you said, I fear that I am talking too much.  Instead condense into one well written post…or perhaps go out for coffee with a friend to get it off my chest.  Thanks for sharing this.  Good things for me to think about!

  • Melinda Taylor

    I was always quiet and I was frustrated by it. I was a homemaker and when I had to go to work I advanced in the company because they liked me at meetings because I would sit quietly and listen to everybody else and in the end I would state my opinion and they would say that it was valuable. I took a writing course at a law school on how to make out orders for protection and harassment and they emphasized the importance of keeping the words simple and short because the judge would get tired of reading it if it was to long and drawn out. This course has served me well through the years.

  • Myra

    I am amazed I just now found this site and the last post was 12 months ago. It is still relevant. Several years ago, I decided I was talking too much. I participated too often in classes. One day, I simply decided to “stop it”. I keep my comments to a minimum and ask myself first, if I would be saying anything worthwhile. That is a good control for me. MyraSaidIt