By Terri Carron

Communication means to succeed in conveying one’s idea or to evoke understanding in others. It seems so simple and yet the bulk of our communication problems in both personal and professional life seem to be our inability to do just that.     

BE AUTHENTIC. What is the number one problem in communicating? Many people assume it’s about style; having a good voice, look, and being at ease in front of people. Would it surprise you to know that it is lack of sincerity? Or a problem with authenticity? Being authentic can overcome even a lack of a speaking style or “rules.” Accent, voice, or a vocal tic doesn’t have to be an obstacle to meaningful communication. Sincerity is, in my opinion, the essential key to communicating your ideas well to others. Actors and salespeople will all tell you that they have to know and believe what they are saying in order to be convincing enough to move you to believe as well.

RESPECT YOUR AUDIENCE. This does not mean that you do not need to pay attention to what you are saying, in other words, to the content—whether you are speaking one on one to a family member, friend, or colleague, or to an entire roomful of people. The first rule is to respect your audience. Respect that you HAVE an audience. They came to hear you because they need information, or need to be motivated to act, or need to be entertained. Identify the need and determine your content based on that. Focus less on what you want to say and more on what they want to know and feel.  

BE CONFIDENT IN YOUR MESSAGE. Have the courage to say what you think. Be confident that you can make worthwhile contributions to conversations. Take time each day to be aware of your opinions and feelings so you can adequately convey them to others. Individuals who are hesitant to speak because they do not feel their input would be worthwhile need not fear. What is important or worthwhile to one person may not be to another and may be more so to someone else.

BE ATTENTIVE TO CUES FROM YOUR AUDIENCE. Make certain to include enough information to not leave your audience confused about the next step. When speaking to someone one-on-one you might get affirmation like a head bob. This shows you that someone is actively listening to you. If the person stops nodding, it could indicate that they need more information or they are in disagreement. 

Men are less committal in their body language and are not as likely as women to react to what you are saying by nodding their heads. They will usually wait till you’re finished to make a comment, so that you don’t know where you stand until afterward. Be aware of “tells.”  When a man begins to check his phone or watch, or begins to button his jacket, or dart his eyes from side to side, you know you are losing him. 

Typically, the way you can break off conversation is to lose eye contact. For example, if you are interviewing someone and you would like to close or move on to another topic, you can lower your eyes to your paper. That is a signal that you are finished talking. 

Make a practice of asking people if they understand your meaning. A common situation is that someone thinks they give clear direction or information but their employees or colleagues did not act on it. It is likely they did not hear what was intended. If you stop periodically to make sure you are being understood, you can avoid wasting time and also help improve your communication. If you frequently find people misunderstand you, you may want to write down points you want to make before you speak. 

When speaking one on one, don’t feel you have to fill the quiet space. If you have said what you want to say, stop talking. Often in an interview, the interviewer will let you ramble on, sometimes to your disadvantage. 

BE AWARE OF HOW YOU SOUND. The quickest way to improve your communication is to listen to yourself on tape. Turn the phone on and place it around the house to hear your conversations. How does your voice sound? Do you interrupt others a lot? How is your pitch? Do you pronounce words clearly?  

There is no “right” type of voice. Having an accent or a vocal tic doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective speaker; on the contrary, some of these so-called defects can even make you a unique and engaging speaker. If you watch movies, you know there are great actors with less than ideal voices. Most of time, it’s their unique voice that makes them so memorable.  

Here are some guidelines: 

Enunciate your words. Speak clearly and don’t mumble. If people frequently ask you to repeat yourself, work on articulating words in a better manner.

Pronounce your words correctly. People judge your competency through your vocabulary. If you aren’t sure of how to say a word, don’t use it. Make it a habit to look up words if you are not sure of either their meaning or their pronunciation. 

Slow your speech down. People will perceive you as nervous and unsure of yourself if you talk too fast. However, be careful not to slow down to the point where people begin to finish your sentences for you. 

Develop your voice. A high or whiny voice does not come across as authoritative, nor does a soft, breathy voice. Begin doing exercises to lower the pitch of your voice. Try singing exercises, or simply sing songs, but do them an octave lower than usual. Practice this and after a period of time, your voice will begin to lower naturally.

Avoid the habit of ending each sentence in a question. Use declarative voice or you risk undermining your credibility.  

 Animate your voice. Avoid a monotone and practice varying your cadence. Your pitch should rise and fall periodically.

Adjust your volume to the situation, speaking more softly when talking one-on-one or to a small and close-knit group and louder when you are speaking to larger groups or across larger spaces. Although this sounds self-evident, people sometimes feel that loud talk is artificial and they avoid it.  But it is necessary when addressing a big crowd, even with a microphone.

Avoid “fillers.” Clear up all the “ums,” “likes,” and other fillers. Do not be afraid to pause between thoughts. This can be an effective way of helping people absorb what you are saying before you launch into your next point. And they pay attention more when they have to anticipate your next thought. 

The best reason for practicing these suggestions is to eliminate what is distracting in your voice so that people will focus on you and your message.   

PAY ATTENTION TO BODY LANGUAGE. Don’t send mixed messages with your body. Your words, gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice should all work together to communicate what you want to convey. For example, reprimanding someone while smiling sends a mixed message. If you have to deliver a negative message, make your words, facial expressions, and tone match the message.  

Keep your hands from your face. Covering the mouth or playing with hair is a “tell,” signaling that you are nervous or bored. (If you feel too nervous to let your arms hang by your side, then carry some papers, but be careful of fiddling with them.) Crossing your arms may make you feel safer but it can send a signal that you are unapproachable; having your hands on your hips can make you appear defiant.  

Be aware of your positions at a table. If you are sitting with someone across the table, don’t be afraid to lean in to make a point. It shows engagement. On the other hand, when you sit leaning way back, you are signaling that you are in charge. This can also signal disengagement. A happy medium is to sit with your back against the back of the seat in a relaxed, open position. 

LISTEN. Finally, remember that a really good speaker is also a talented listener. Don’t talk over the other person. A good conversation has the element of good timing. It’s important to make people feel they are being heard, not merely tolerated until you get to talk again. It’s hard for all of us to wait, especially with our families and friends. Use time with others to practice letting a second or two go by before you respond. You might end up learning more than you think.