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11 Communication Musts

Tips for being heard and respected.

Key points

  • How we communicate matters, but we may have picked up bad habits throughout life.
  • Some tips for better communication include putting yourself in a listener's shoes and keeping most utterances under one minute or talks under 20 minutes.
  • Some other tips include speaking more slowly than in conversation, having good posture and making eye contact about two-thirds of the time.
Milan Gladis, Noun Project, Public Domain
Source: Milan Gladis, Noun Project, Public Domain

Sometimes it’s not what you know or even who you know, but how you say it. Here are 11 tips for saying it well, whether a one-minute report at a staff meeting or a keynote to a cast of thousands.

Put yourself in your listeners' shoes. What do they need to hear? Want to hear? Fact- or feeling-centric? Formal or informal?

Length. Keep most utterances under 30 seconds, certainly under a minute. That ensures that your conversation partner(s) has a fair chance to participate, that s/he doesn't forget what s/he wanted to say, nor think you’re egotistical. Tip: Many speakers lose track of time. To keep your utterances to a minute or less, practice by talking while looking into a timer or watch that has a second hand. You may be surprised to see how quickly a minute goes by.

It will help to, before you speak, take a deep breath to calm yourself and to get a moment for your brain to fire a zillion times in deciding what to say, and say your most important thing first. During your first 30 seconds, your light is green, second 30 yellow and at 60 red. Yes, there's the rare time to run a red light, for example, when stopping would truly omit something important, but that is rare.

Another rule of thumb: Speak approximately your share of the time. In a two-person conversation, that's 30 to 50 percent of the time, unless it's expected that you have most of the content, which you might go as high as 70.

If giving a talk, generally keep it to 20 minutes—unless you’re compelling, many people’s attention fades after that. You can add time for Q&A. Usually, I do the Q&A right before my final story. I want to end with something more powerful than the answer to someone’s question.

Focus. Stay conscious of whether most people in your audience will appreciate that detail or tangent. Usually, it's wise to minimize both. People tend to listen with one ear or get distracted. By keeping to a structure, people will more likely stay with you. A day, let alone a week after a talk, most people remember little from it. Think back to a talk you attended a week or more ago. How much do you remember? So err on the side of structure and simplicity.

Speed. Because many people don't listen intently, in addition to using an easy-to-follow structure such as: “I want to make two points today,” speak more slowly than in conversation. That also gives people time to process, to apply what you're saying to their situation. A relatively slow pace also conveys confidence. Excessive speed can imply that you're insecure or a huckster. Of course, like a musician, vary your pace. When it feels right, speed up for a few words or, more often, slow down for emphasis. The effect can be dramatic.

Appeal to both head and heart. Compelling, not-obvious statistics and facts appeal to the head, emotional anecdotes and addressing core values appeal to the heart. For example, political pollsters find that it’s wise to invoke emotion-triggering concepts such as decency, equality, and progress and to paint the other side as elitist, radical, and of ill-begotten wealth.

Posture. There was a reason that rich people used to send their teens to deportment school. Shallow though it is, you gain credibility by standing erect but relaxed with shoulders back and chin straight out or looking slightly up. I first saw the power of the chin when I noticed that, when making a controversial point, President Obama raised his chin slightly. That made him seem more confident and powerful. Since then, I’ve noticed that when the news or entertainment media or advertisers want to make a character look good, they’re often portrayed with chin raised—check it out. But don't raise your chin too much. It can make you look conceited.

Eye-contact. Rule of thumb: Look your conversation partner in the eye two-thirds of the time. More can make you look psychotic, less can make the person feel you don’t care about him or her. When speaking to a group, make eye contact for one second with the person on your far left, then to the next person, and when you reach the person on your far right, reverse direction. On a videoconference, focus your eyes, just above the lens. That gets you that slightly raised chin.

In a video-call, even if the other participants have turned off their video, keep yours on. That way other speakers can see your eye contact and nods of agreement.

Timbre. Both men and women should speak near the bottom of their natural range. That’s another easy albeit shallow way to gain credibility. But don't go beneath the bottom of your natural range—you’ll sound artificial and perhaps gravelly.

Smile. In perhaps the ultimate example of a shallow way to improve people’s reaction to you, start with a smile and, when it feels appropriate, smile again.

Interrupting. The standard advice— “don’t interrupt”— is too black-and-white. Yes, err toward that but if a person is long-winded or you have something important to say that would obviate what’s likely to be a long dissertation, it’s okay to interrupt.

With some people and in some cultures, interrupting is more acceptable. Read your audience: Case by case, consciously decide whether it’s worth interrupting. You’re often wise not just to let the person finish but to count “One-Mississippi” to yourself before responding. A one-second pause conveys that you’re taking the other person’s statement seriously and aren't just waiting for them to shut up so you can share your pearls. The one-second pause also gives you a moment to think before speaking, something that most of us could use. If you think you might be interrupting too often, see "Why Interrupting Is More Harmful Than You Think."

Speaking for elevation. Normally, you want to be conversational in tone and language. But occasionally, when trying to inspire, it’s appropriate to use loftier language and even invoke the wisdom of others. For example, if I were giving a talk to educators, I could do worse than to invoke Martin Luther King: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character— that is the goal of true education."

The takeaway

We began speaking before we were 1 year old, so much of how we speak is ossified. To break out of fossilized bad practice requires, well, practice. Pick one or two of the aforementioned tips and practice, whether with a timer, camcorder, or friend.

Working on your communication skills may be among the most potent ways to improve not just your career but your personal life.

I read this aloud on YouTube. Here is a post on communication that focuses on protecting yourself in “gotcha!” times, and here is a post that describes three approaches to public speaking.

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