(This post was written together with Teresa Erickson, my co-author and business partner).
In our work as communications experts and advisors, we often hear our clients ask for a short list of effective communications tips. We've boiled it down for them to "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Communicators." To improve your own communications, choose one and focus on it for a week, then move on to another. You'll find much more in our new book, The Master Communicator's Handbook.
1. Always have a clear communications goal or a message in mind.
We are often surprised how many experts and leaders find it difficult to articulate their ideas clearly. Stick to the point you want to make and don't go off on a tangent.
2. Speak in short sentences.
When we hear or read a sentence, we have to hold all the words in our head until the end in order to make meaning of the sentence. Short sentences make this easy on our brains. Longer sentences, especially those containing additional clauses (or parenthetical remarks) or insertions of ideas that seem only loosely related - for example if we were to throw in a cooking metaphor about too many ingredients spoiling the stew or something like that - tax the mind, diminish comprehension, and make it all too easy for the reader to check out before the sentence winds to its eventual close, a close that becomes downright aggravating should redundancies or secondary ideas be introduced near the end. So, don't do that.
3. Project Authority with your Word Choice.
Choose words and phrases that are powerful and eliminate those that sound tentative. Tentative language is defined as "cautious" or "hedging" language. It's favored in academic writing where you must be careful of making assertions without qualifiers. Phrases such as "appears to be," or "perhaps might be attributed to," or "might be seen in some cases as," are all examples of tentative, softening terms seen in academic reports. Limiting words, such as "possibly," "probably" or "likely," also convey uncertainty. This kind of approach does not translate to contexts where you want to come across as clear, assertive and confident. When your goal is to inform and lead, employing a more directive approach with fewer words is more effective.
Some confident expressions:
The facts on this issue are...
My/Our recommendation is...
I have 3 points to make. Number 1...
I'll give you 2 reasons why this is so...
4. Avoid Negatives.
Speaking in the negative can confuse your audience. You are highlighting what is not the case or what you do not do. Strangely, listeners tend to believe the opposite of your denials. Remember Nixon's famous line, "I am not a crook"? We listened to him on TV and said to ourselves, "Oh yes you are!"
So if you say "It's not true to say that I am an argumentative person" - you will have implanted the idea that you are argumentative. Instead, assert what is true without repeating negative allegations. This keeps you from sounding defensive. So instead of denying you are argumentative, you could say: "Actually, I'm quite agreeable and open to new ideas."
5. Avoid Value Judgments. Speak about facts.
The statement "Ireland's economy did not do very well last year" can be construed as an opinion. You are in effect asking your listeners trust your judgment. Why should they? Your words will carry more weight if you can point to objective facts that can be independently verified. The statement "Ireland's growth rate fell last year from 8% to 4%, according to the IMF's recent report on the country" is a fact that can be verified.
Listening to politicians talk is a great way to reinforce this lesson. Ask yourself if a particular statement is a value judgment or a fact. And if it's stated as a fact, is the speaker providing a reliable source you could substantiate on your own?
6. Voice Delivery.
Project your voice so everyone can hear you. Speak clearly and at the right pace. Not too fast, not too slow. Avoid "um's" or "ah's." Put more emphasis on certain words to make your delivery more interesting to the ear. Pause before and after an important phrase or sentence to give it more power, and let your audience absorb it.
7. Body Language:
People's initial impressions of you are formed within the first thirty seconds of meeting you. Your body language has a big impact on how receptive they are likely to be of your words. An arrogant tilt to the chin or an uncertain fidgeting of the hands can make it difficult for listeners to hear what you have to say with an open mind.
First, Keep your body language open. Do not cross your arms or fold your hands in front of you. Second, sit up straight. Good posture makes you seem alert and energetic. Third, relax and occupy your space, rather than shrink to take up less space. That's construed as a sign of timidity. Fourth, maintain eye contact. Fifth, gesture naturally. And finally, Smile. Smile with genuine warmth when you greet your audience and be sure to smile again when you thank them at the end.
Tim Ward and Teresa Erickson are co-owners of Intermedia Communications Training, Inc, a Washington D.C> based firm that specializes in communications for development, economics, science and the environment. They are the authors of The Master Communicator's Handbook.