Verbal communication skills make up an important part of a leader’s toolkit, so we must assess our skills and improve our techniques.
The power of words is never more apparent than when messages get lost in translation. PepsiCo learnt this to its cost when, in Taiwan, the translation of its slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as the somewhat alarming “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”.
But it’s not just cultural mistakes that we need to worry about in the workplace; language is a subtle artform which leaders can master to provide clear instructions and coherent messaging, creating the shared meaning that all good communication needs, or fumble, adding to misunderstandings and confusion.
As the playwright George Bernard Shaw warned, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
When we get it right, verbal communication goes a long way to enhancing engagement, efficiency and inclusion. It enables us to express our opinions, resolve problems, issue instructions, lead and contribute to meetings, make presentations, provide feedback, influence decision-making and boost morale. Even the simplest of conversations, if managed well, can help us to refine our own thinking as well as to share it. By contrast, ineffective or inadequate communication may damage relationships, generate conflict and undermine personal, team and organisational success.
Assessing spoken communication
With increasing channels of written communication – from texts and emails to social media and instant messaging – it can be easy to become deskilled in spoken communication; however, it underpins important areas of management.
As leaders, we need to be able to engage and converse with diverse people, about diverse things, in a range of formal and informal situations, one to one or within groups, at every level of seniority, inside and outside of the business. Communication preferences may differ across generations – for example, research suggests that Generation Z workers tend to have a more casual style of communication and put a high value on authenticity and inclusion. Messages may also be simple and straightforward or nuanced and complex. It’s important for us to be able to flex our style depending on our context and audience.
And, of course, spoken communication may take place in person, over the phone, or via video or conference calls, each of which involves subtly different techniques.
To improve our capabilities, we can begin by conducting an honest assessment of our current skill level and then identify the areas that need work, putting the emphasis on the following:
Clarity is a must if we are to get our messages across accurately. This involves thinking before we speak – about what to say, how to say it and to whom we are speaking – to ensure that we can put forward an argument in a structured, logical and accessible manner. We should also do our best to avoid jargon and to stamp out filler words such as “um” and “like”, articulating clearly. The ability to control and vary our pace, vocal tone, cadence and volume aids clarity and our audience’s understanding.
How to speak more clearly: Practise your articulation in front of a friend or colleague, or by recording yourself, varying your volume, pitch, tone, cadence and inflection to see what works best in different scenarios. Ask listeners questions to check that they’ve understood what you’re trying to communicate and what hampered their understanding.
Conciseness aids clarity and ensures that people keep listening. As the adage goes: “The more you say, the less people remember.” Rambling or waffling often takes place when our brains stop working but our mouths keep going, or when we get caught up in unnecessary detail or our own anxiety. When we do this, our core message gets lost.
How to be more concise: Summarise your key message to yourself before speaking, stop over-explaining and practise eliminating pointless phrases such as “to be honest” and “as I said before”. Tap into the reactions and responses of listeners for signs of boredom or frustration and learn to grow comfortable with pauses and silence. Set yourself time limits when presenting and stick to them.
Compelling communication occurs when a speaker combines gravitas with storytelling. Confidence helps us to project trustworthiness and authority – which means that people are more likely to listen to us and take our messages on board; maintaining a good level of eye contact, lowering our pitch and speaking at a moderate pace and volume will help to achieve this. Meanwhile, stories bring context and colour to our communication, connecting ideas with emotions. They help us to develop a bond with listeners and move beyond ‘telling’ to ‘showing’.
How to be more compelling: Study the principles of well-told stories and learn to frame your experiences into anecdotes that help you communicate your messages. Prepare well for formal presentations and hone confidence in your voice. Strategies include mastering your breathing, warming up both body and voice with physical and vocal exercises, and staying hydrated to avoid a dry throat. Manage anxiety with creative visualisation techniques. Note that interrupting people or monopolising conversations isn’t confidence, it’s domination.
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