We only live once, so why not make the most of it? The ‘Better Me’ series hopes to give some ideas on how to add fun and meaning to our lives.
Do you ever catch people looking behind your shoulder while you’re talking to them? Or scanning the room? Or watching TV? Or simply looking down? I do. And it drives me nuts. Sure, these days people are busy. They have a thousand things on their minds, all of which are more important to them than what I’m banging on about. But to what extent could I hold people’s attention if I communicated better?
Speech patterns worth breaking
The effectiveness with which we communicate is very much influenced by our level of confidence. That is why we tend to communicate much more effectively on topics we know well and feel passionate about. Any insecurity seeping into our minds will often work its way into our speech and, as soon as it is detected by our audience, it will dramatically reduce our chances of being heard. Sadly, the more important our speech (whether it’s a job interview, an important presentation or a serious talk with a friend), the more likely it is to be plagued by signs of insecurity. Most of us are guilty of at least one of the ineffective vocal habits below:
1. I’m no expert, but…
Caveated introductions are so comforting. They make us feel safe enough to voice an opinion which is not necessarily valid. They also encourage our audience to assume that our opinion is actually not valid. The use of disclaimers is, of course, sometimes necessary. The rest of the time, don’t use them.
2. I know that’s what happened?
Question-marked endings (or rising inflections) are a spreading epidemic. For some reason we seem to have forgotten how to pronounce full stops. This constant seeking of reassurance from our audience can make us seem (guess what?) insecure and hungry for attention. Have the conviction to end sentences with a full stop.
3. Kinda sorta like
“I kind of think you are right.”
Why do I ‘kind of think’ and not just ‘think’ I’m right? Which part of my thinking process or opinion is ‘kind of’? Actually, none. Redundant words can only reduce the impact of what we are saying.
Filling our pauses in with umm’s laces our speech with uncertainty. It can also distract the audience from what we are trying to say.
5. I’m such an idiot!
No matter how jokey, self-deprecating comments take away from the speaker’s authority. Avoid them completely in presentations and interviews.
How can we get better?
All we have to do to get better is practise. Here are a few simple steps you can take to improve the effectiveness of your communications:
1. Know thyself
The first step towards improving is knowing what you need to improve. Perhaps you are already aware of the areas that need your attention. If not, don’t worry, there are many ways to find out.
The first thing to do is to observe the way in which you talk. When is it that you hold people’s attention? When do you tend to lose it? Are there speech patterns or gestures that you fall back on when you are feeling less confident?
You can go a step further and ask your friends to help you. Ask them to watch you over a few days (or while you rehearse a speech or presentation) and give you detailed and honest feedback on the way you talk and your body language.
Another useful trick (though often not entirely pleasant) is to record yourself while doing a talk or presentation, play it back and identify all the things you could have said or done better.
2. Think before you speak
We tend to assume that the faster we speak the more quick-witted we will appear to be. That’s not necessarily the case, especially when the things we come out with are not exactly pearls of wisdom. Take a moment to think of a sensible, coherent and succinct response. After all, do you know any wise people who speak fast?
Pausing between phrases not only allows you to think (as mentioned above), but it also allows your audience to digest your wonderful pearls of wisdom. Pauses are a great way of showing confidence and authority over your audience. Make sure that you pause in the right places. Do not fill your pauses with any umm’s, hums, apologies or kinda sorta likes.
4. Ask your friends
Your friends can not only help you to identify bad vocal habits, but they can also help you to break them. For example, get a friend to alert you every time you pepper a sentence with a redundant “like”.
5. Don’t say too much
When we are feeling nervous, we sometimes talk too much. Often in such situations, we tend to repeat ourselves unnecessarily or make gratuitous revelations. To make matters worse, when we catch ourselves wittering on, we sometimes start to giggle, or we taper off like a bad pop song. Avoid doing this by ending your sentences with firm full stops (see above!), as soon as you have made your point. Make sure to enunciate clearly, and don’t let your energy dwindle mid-sentence.
6. More than words
When do people look over my shoulder while I’m talking to them? Most of the time, it’s when I am not engaging with them. Whether your audience is one person or a thousand people, the way to engage with them is to get them involved. You can do that by asking questions, telling stories, making them laugh. But words are not the only way of engaging with your audience. Making appropriate eye contact is crucial in creating a rapport. So is smiling and using appropriate, controlled gestures to emphasise your speech.
7. Find inspiration
Sometimes I notice things about other people’s speech that I don’t like. And then I do them too. To some extent, the way we talk is contagious. I often catch myself mimicking friends’ catch phrases, gestures and facial expressions, even ones that I don’t like. But what if you could selectively adopt only the things you did like? Start observing people around you. Watch speakers you admire and try to adopt some of their techniques. But remember, your goal is to improve your own style, not to steal someone else’s. Whatever you do, stay true to your own personality.