Mastering the Basics of Communication
North is a consultant for political candidates, physicians, and lawyers, and runs a private practice specializing in public speaking, and executive communication skills. Previously, she was the clinical director in the department of speech and language pathology and audiology at Northeastern University.
Every good leader has something to say. Yet, many of us don’t take the time to polish and shape how we communicate those ideas to others or ponder how others may receive our message.
Communication can be summed up to be the exchange of information. Given the complex ways that we receive and perceive messages, however, this exchange is far from simple and straightforward. To become a good communicator, you first must master the basics of having a two-way conversation.
Learn to Listen
Most of us only remember about half of what we hear—no matter how carefully we think we’re listening. But effective leadership requires good listening. Clearly, this is a critical skill to learn. Since it isn’t usually taught in schools, we need to train ourselves to listen.
Improve your active listening by practicing three simple techniques:
- Suspend any biases you might have about the speaker’s appearance or prior actions.
- Quiet your mind by focusing on what is being said instead of thinking about your response.
- Encourage the speaker to continue sharing information by asking open-ended questions and nodding your head.
Effective listening doesn’t come naturally to most people. But when you consider that listening is one-half of the communication dynamic, the importance of practicing this undervalued skill becomes apparent.
Know Your Audience
Before you begin to craft your message, learn as much as you can about your listeners. This will help you not only to determine your choice of words and level of information, but also to structure your delivery and motivate your audience.
Figure out the level of knowledge and interest your listeners have in your topic. Do they have any preconceptions? Are they hostile or friendly? Will they feel pressured to react in a specific way? It’s important to consider these questions whether you plan to speak to one or many. Watch for nonverbal cues from your audience, listen to their feedback, and adjust your message accordingly.
Organize and Structure Your Message
Words are powerful—they carry a literal as well as a connotative meaning. Because those connotations differ in various parts of the world, it’s crucial to know your audience.
For example, dog is a neutral word. But mongrel carries a negative connotation, while man’s best friend carries a positive one. Take time to choose the right word or expression and be sure to pronounce it correctly.
A few other tips to consider when formulating your message:
Clarity. Choose concrete, familiar words that refer to tangible objects. These words are more likely to maintain your audience’s interest and less likely to be misinterpreted. Avoid using more words than necessary to express an idea—be concise.
Vivid language. Imagery is memorable. So be sure to use descriptive language—such as color, size, and shape—to create mental images of objects, actions, or ideas. Select lively verbs and speak in an active voice.
Rhythm. Your choice and arrangement of words create a pattern of sound. There are many tools to consider when it comes to establishing rhythm—repetition, alliteration, even onomatopoeia.
For maximum effect, use these language tools sparingly—overuse may sound pretentious. You don’t want to compromise your credibility or the audience’s interest.
Pay Attention to Your Nonverbal Skills
Many people don’t realize that nonverbal cues can convey an unintended message to their audience. You may think you’re being open, but if your arms are crossed or your back is turned, you’re creating a barrier.
Research shows that when given the choice of believing visual and vocal cues or spoken words, listeners typically trust the nonverbal message. If you shuffle your feet or gaze out the window, you won’t get your message across effectively. The same holds true for your delivery—avoid mumbling and monotones.
Effective nonverbal communication includes:
- Proper attire
- Good posture
- Natural gestures
- Purposeful movement
- Appropriate eye contact
- Energy and enthusiasm
Communicating Is Connecting
Most audiences prefer a delivery that combines a certain degree of formality with the best attributes of good conversation. Be direct, spontaneous, and animated. Use vocal and facial expressions to liven things up.
And remember: Communication is fluid. Putting in the work beforehand to organize your ideas and understand your audience will make you a better speaker, but you must listen to your audience and adapt to their feedback as well. If your listener is bored or confused, modify your verbal and nonverbal message—inject some humor, explain the confusion, or even change course.
After all, a rigid communication style often prevents a meaningful connection between speaker and listener. On the other hand, a flexible style not only helps you get your point across more effectively but also keeps everyone on their toes and actively engaged.