How to improve your Speaking Skills
Meaning, Importance and Improvement tips
When you speak, you usually reveal more about yourself than the actual message you are conveying. That’s because your voice is loaded with cues that the listener responds to intuitively and instantly.
While an accent immediately sends out cultural and ethnic cues, other features such as tone of voice, pitch, pace, inflection, volume, rhythm and body language hint at personality traits, emotional state and/or confidence levels.
So, for instance, while a dialect would point to the speaker’s geographic roots, a hesitant voice could suggest low self-esteem, whereas a steady and firm voice with good clarity speaks of a confident person.
Let’s engage in a simple exercise that will reveal how much more there is to a message than just words. Shut your eyes and, for a moment, let your attention rest on key people at your workplace.
Focus on each one’s voice and become aware of the reaction their voice evokes. You will soon realise that speaking skills are part of a larger communication technique that varies from one person to another, where some are more effective than others.
Repeat this exercise when you can actually observe these people at work and identify the speech elements that accompany their words.
You will begin to see what we mean when we say that speech elements and non-verbal cues are as important as the message, per se.
There’s research to prove it as well. Duke University professors, William Mayew and Mohan Venkatachalam, from the Fuqua School of Business studied how CEOs and CFOs of 691 leading companies spoke during 1,647 conference calls to announce their company performance. They also tracked how these calls and the positive/negative tones of those presenting the earnings impacted the analyst recommendations and the performance of the company stock.
The results were interesting. When the executives presented with enthusiasm, the markets responded accordingly and gave the company a thumbs up. In contrast, when the CEOs/CFOs tried to play spin doctors and mask the truth, their voice gave them away and the markets reacted accordingly.
Professor Mayew’s recommendation to analysts and investors is to focus on not just the data/information, but also on how it is presented.
If you are a public figure, there are probably enough sound-bytes & videos available on the internet for your audience to form a judgement about you.
Speaking skills corner the largest part of the communications pie. It’s simple: we speak more than we write.
Speaking is the most frequently used vehicle to get a message across at work, and it comes into play at meetings, presentations, workshops, interviews, and telephonic and video conferencing.
It is also the preferred mode of communication in situations where establishing a personal connection is absolutely vital such as conflict-resolution, team-building exercises and while marketing a product or service.
Effective Public Speaking Skills
Let’s analyse this crucial skill in greater depth and explore ways to get people to listen up when you speak!
First, Listen To Yourself Speak
In much the same way many as people don’t like being photographed, there are many who cringe at the thought of having their voice recorded and then listening to it.
Get over it!
Listening to your own voice is the first step to discovering how you sound to other people and, thus, identifying areas you need to work on. Here’s a simple exercise to improve your speaking skills.
Choose a couple of pages from a book, even a technical manual will do. Before you actually record your voice, read the document or book a couple of times, silently and then aloud.
When you read aloud, read slowly and deliberately; hold the book higher and project your voice as if addressing a small group of people; and finally learn to pause in appropriate places.
A dramatic pause conveys authority and confidence, and makes people sit up and take notice.
Repeat this exercise daily, for ten days or two weeks, and you will notice a discernible difference in your speaking skills.
There are some people who speak in an almost flat and lifeless tone while, at the other extreme, there are those who are super-animated. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
Still, there is a lot you can do to improve your vocal range so that you sound more engaging, confident and pleasing.
Pace refers to the speed at which you talk. Speaking too fast does not allow sufficient time for listeners to assimilate what you are saying, while a slow and plodding pace will turn off people in an instant.
Ideally, you need to vary your pace, quickening it at times and then slowing down, in tandem with the content of your message. This is the best way to keep people hooked.
You can vary your volume to create emphasis. Interestingly, you can grab attention by either briefly suddenly dropping your voice or raising it, provided you know exactly how to use this technique.
Have you noticed that when you’re tense, you speak at a higher pitch, and that it’s the other way round when you are relaxed?
The first rule when speaking in public or to a group is to be as relaxed as possible, so that you can control the pitch of your voice and other elements of speech.
Varying your pitch and injecting your speech with sufficient vocal energy helps keep listeners hooked.
‘Noise’ refers to anything that distorts the message you are trying to convey. Just like physical noise can interfere with what the listener hears, communication ‘noise’ can have the same effect.
This type of noise includes the use of irritants, complicated jargon, inappropriate body language and disinterest.
When speaking at work, make sure you eliminate every possible source of psychological and emotional noise when speaking one-on-one or while addressing a group.
Speaking Skills & Non-Verbal Cues
Every time you speak, you use a battery of non-verbal cues that reveals plenty about you, and what you are saying.
These cues include facial expressions, posture, body movements such as hand gestures or nodding your head, eye contact or lack of it, and physiological changes such as sweating or nervous blinking.
Non-verbal cues provide additional information about the message or the speaker, and often cut straight to his or her emotional attitude surrounding the message.
There may be times when you are trying to mask your attitude, say, when embellishing facts and figures about your team’s performance, covering for someone, or being hopelessly optimistic about a lost cause.
In this case, your body language will conflict with your words, but, remember, your listeners will almost always choose non-verbal behavior over your words.
Holding A Conversation
Let’s end this post with some small talk, that is, using your new-found speaking skills while having a conversation.
This tool can come in handy in a variety of situations at the workplace: when meeting a potential client for the first time, when introduced to a new peer or colleague at the office, or while networking at a meet-up or seminar.
Not everyone has brilliant conversational skills yet this social skill is important to master in a world that is connected in so many different ways and on so many different levels.
The first thing to remember is that a conversation is a two-way street; it is never a monologue.
By all means, say as much as you want to but also be a good listener when it’s the other person’s turn!
Second, be pleasant and polite. Smile, use a compliment or two, and steer clear of discussing controversial subjects.
Three, find some common ground – shared interests, hobbies, political or social views – and create an emotional connect. When someone identifies with you, they are more likely to be receptive to what you are saying.
If you have superior speaking skills and are blessed with a sense of humour, you could risk cornering a larger share of the conversation.
But always be acutely aware of the other person’s response and check the listener’s non-verbal cues to see if you should pull back. Being a good conversationalist is also about knowing when to shut it down!
Back to the list of career skills.