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Skill Check: Verbal Communications

In the world of business—and very much especially now with so many of our communications taking place over a video call—your verbal communications skills are perhaps the most important “soft” skill you can grow and maintain. And for many of us, verbal communications are also our weakest point! Fear of “public speaking,” even in small groups, can be paralyzing. But here’s the thing: with a little quiet, private practice, you can become a much better verbal communicator. All you’ll need is a voice-recording app on your smartphone, and the following tips.

First, whenever possible, try to capture an audio recording of the meetings you’re in where you speak—even if you’re only speaking to a couple of colleagues, and even if it’s only for a moment. Obviously, ask their permission first, and let them know you’re doing it to try and hone your own verbal communications skills. Use a voice recorder app for in-person meetings, and for online meetings use the meeting platform’s recording feature.

Next, analyze those meetings. Here are some key things to be listening for:

  • Verbal “tics.” Listen for those “um,” and “er,” and “you know,” and other “fillers.” Most often, those are a way for us to “fill the silence” while our brains are working out what to say next. Condition yourself to stop using those fillers. Instead… just let there be silence. Moments of silence actually give your listeners’ brains a chance to catch up and process as well—silence shouldn’t be perceived as awkward. Once you start noticing yourself using fillers, you’ll start to consciously stop doing it.
  • Wandering off-topic. How often do you find yourself wandering off-topic? This is easy to do when you’re talking about something you weren’t prepared for; off-the-cuff speaking is really difficult. But by simply being aware that it happens, you’ll once again start making a more conscious effort to stay on-track.
  • Speaking in a monotone. This is an especially common habit for people who don’t like to speak in front of others, or who don’t like the sound of their own voice. But your voice is an instrument. Play that instrument! Learn to add inflection and flavor to your voice. Inject emotion to capture your listeners’ attention and direct them to what you’re saying—and feeling.
  • Improper inflection. A lot of us pick up bad habits throughout our lives, and this is a time to start addressing some of the verbal ones. For example, the pitch of your voice should rise at the end of a sentence when you’re asking a question—and generally speaking, shouldn’t when you’re not asking a question.
  • Speed. Speaking quickly can help you get to a particular point more rapidly; speaking slowly can help emphasize what you’re saying. Use speed just as you would the pitch of your voice: as a way of emphasizing the right bits and drawing your listeners in. Honestly, most people think they’re speaking slower than they are; listen to yourself and start to judge where you might be rushing past important bits.

Find people whose speaking skills you admire, and listen to them (ideally, to recordings of them). Tune out the content of what they’re saying, and instead focus on how they use their voice.

In private, record yourself reading short passages from a book or news article. Start to use your voice to making your reading more compelling: emphasize important words and phrases, pay attention to punctuation, and embrace your inner audiobook narrator. Don’t like how your voice sounds? Change it. Adjust your pitch, speed, and emotional tone until your voice sounds more compelling and interesting to listen to. Detach yourself from yourself a bit, and judge your reading as a performance, using some of the bullets above.

All of this is a great set of exercises to perform once a week, using perhaps an hour of your time. Analyze past meeting recordings, practice reading short passages, and own your voice. Speaking isn’t something that happens to you; it’s something you can control and manage, just like any other skill.

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