Tips for Enhancing Verbal Communication Skills

 

In a web-based world, we are what we post. Our online presence can have a significant impact on our public personas, careers and lives in general. With enough time to craft that persona using social media, we project any kind of image of ourselves.

While it is important to build an online presence, it is unfortunate that less emphasis is placed on the art of oral communication in the construction of these personas.

There is no backspace with spoken words. We cannot italicize or ‘add photo’ to accentuate our verbal opinions. There is so much power in the art of speaking that gets lost in between written words.

We should all continually strive to improve our verbal communication skills. Many people don’t know that a speech language pathologist can provide instruction for verbal communication and presentation skills.

After several years of providing communication coaching as a speech language pathologist to individuals in the corporate world, I’ve noticed many of the same errors occurring frequently. Here are some of those problems, and some strategies to be conscious of during your next networking event, pitch or interview. Don’t be embarrassed to take action to help bring your verbal skills to the next level!

Slow down!

For starters, slow your message down! Have you ever found yourself speeding up your speech, especially toward the end of your idea, out of fear that your listeners are impatient or rushing you? Or that they are ready to take their lunch break and possibly uninterested in what you have to say? In reality, you are probably the only one rushing you. The appropriate rate of speech for natural conversation is approximately 140 words per minute. To determine where you fall, try recording yourself talking about your day (or your favourite book or the daily news) for two minutes. Listen back and tally the total amount of words, then divide that by the number of minutes you spoke for. Most are shocked at how fast their rate of speech is. If your rate falls anywhere above 160 words per minute, it’s likely that your listeners are not able to grasp all of the content. Practice that same exercise described above, while slowing down your pace, until you reach your target rate. Slowing down should feel unusual at the start. Maintaining a slow and steady rate of speech is not easy, but it begins by believing that what you’re saying is important and warrants every split second of the floor. You have the floor because you are the professional…you’ve got this!

Um…

Filler words, better known as the ‘ums’, ‘uhs’ and of course the ‘likes’ of our speech, is language that we use by default, out of habit, and not to communicate information. Filler words, however, are far from useless and serve a great function. In fact, many languages across the world have their own unique filler words. They serve the speaker by buying time and indicate to the listeners that they are still holding the floor and should not be interrupted. We all use these words in casual conversation, when tired, and for socio-linguistic reasons; their presence in these scenarios does not necessarily imply a lack of competence. However, we can be perceived as such when used in a formal or professional setting. Recording yourself and counting your ‘ums’ can be an eye-opening exercise which often motivates people to make the effort to rid their speech of them. We all use filler words but probably don’t realize just how often. One important tip is to always remember take a breath before beginning a new sentence. This gives your speech enough time to catch up to your thoughts. If you’re thinking about something you have not yet uttered, you risk being distracted and filling the confused void with an ‘um’. Keeping these tips in mind, it’s inevitable that you will still have spaces to fill. Instead of resorting to ‘um’, try pausing. It sounds natural and much more confident!

Emphasize the right words.

Intonation, tone and stress are the ways in which we convey emphasis, questions and sarcasm. Without them, your speech is at risk of sounding monotone and ambiguous in meaning, and at risk of leaving your listeners bored and unengaged. But first, it’s important to understanding how we can use our voices to manipulate meaning. We use rising intonation toward the end of our utterance to indicate a question versus a statement. We stress certain words for emphasis by making them louder and longer. For instance, “I don’t like his book” can have various meanings depending on where the emphasis is placed. “I don’t like his book” hints that someone else does. “I don’t like his book” is a way to reiterate your preference. “I don’t like his book” means that the word ‘like’ isn’t an accurate sentiment, perhaps you ‘love’ it. “I don’t like his book” implies that there is another authors book that you prefer. Finally, “I don’t like his book” suggests that you like some of the author’s other work. Even individuals who regularly use their voice to convey tone can experience difficulty in formal settings due to nerves. Speech is rhythmic so try to think of speaking as a form of singing, using pitch and volume to help express your meaning.

It’s easy to know what to change, the hard part is incorporating the changes into speech, making it second nature. Begin practicing speaking slowly and with fewer fillers first with friends and family. Chat about the weather or the latest hockey game. Once the skill becomes more natural at this level, you can begin to practice and generalize the skill in a more taxing environment, such as the workplace. Start with a colleague you feel the most comfortable with, and then make it progressively more challenging. Thinking about how you are speaking in addition to what you are talking about is incredibly hard but it’s important to not go into auto-pilot mode and get lost in our old habits.

Another key is finding an object to help you be mindful in the moment. Be it a string tied around your finger or a coin in your pocket, discrete fidgeting with a small item can be exceptionally useful in bringing us into the present. Find what object works best for you and make sure to carry it with you throughout the day.

Correcting a behaviour requires awareness, practice, and more practice. There’s no shame in speaking in front of a mirror, recording yourself and tracking your progress on a regular basis. If an audience would be more motivating, join your nearest Toastmasters and put your strategies to the test. Next time you’re asked to speak about your innovative new idea, socialize with others at a work event or record your next podcast, take that deep breath, slow your rate of speech, and pick a mindfulness technique that suits you. You know your stuff! Let your verbal skills reflect that.

Tamara Paull M.Sc, Speech-Language Pathologist, Reg. CASLPO