Great communicators don’t just talk: Some tips for turning your remarks into more than conversation

Posted on Written by Mary Elston

Mary ElstonBlah, blah, blah — yada, yada — yak, yak. Whether to inform, transact or socialize, people are constantly chatting.

A terrific talk that a company executive gave, followed a few days later by a run-of-the-mill church sermon, got me thinking — when does talking go beyond conversing? When does an exchange of this or that turn into sharing something bigger than chat?

As a speaker or listener, you can feel it when it happens, when you make a connection and truly communicate. That begs the question — and you knew it would: How do you advance from being an average conversationalist to an absolute communicator?

In my quest to discover more about molding related remarks into impressive interactions, I came upon a summary provided by Travis Bradberry, “8 Secrets of Great Communicators” (Forbes.com, July 19, 2016).

Bradberry disclosed details from researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who determined that those who know each other well don’t communicate any better than with people they just met because of “closeness-communication bias.”

Averting the bias means always keeping in mind that what you know is different from what the other person knows. Bradberry borrowed a George Bernard Shaw quote that says it all: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Because great leaders are often consummate communicators, let’s walk through eight elements for converting your commentary from common into incomparable.

Speak to groups as individuals. Whether speaking to a small team or several hundred people, you must develop your approach to include a level of intimacy that makes each person in the room feel as if you’re talking directly to him or her.

Bradberry advises that the trick is to eliminate the distraction of the crowd so you can deliver your message as if you were talking to an individual. My version of this is to think of speaking to a group as if I’m having a cup of coffee with each one of them, using associated emotion and engagement. This helps sidestep large-audience anxiety and the invisible “holding back” stiffness that comes with it.

Talk so people will listen. Continuously reading your audience (groups and individuals) for uptake and reaction is part of being a superb orator and validates that people are ready to hear your message. This means adjusting your content on the fly, if needed.

What’s a big red flag that presenters are more concerned about themselves than about having a meaningful exchange with those assembled? Their first statement after a speech sounds like, “I made it through all my material.” Put aside the urge to plow through all your points. Talks that hit the right tone and encourage insightful questions are on the right track.

Listen so people will talk. Dialogue disaster begins with leaders who think communication is a one-way street. Interactions must include rich opportunity for others to speak their minds. If you often have the last word, you need to become a better listener. Listening involves hearing terms as well as absorbing vocal tone, pace, volume and emotion. This is the what, how and why of what is and what is not being said.

Are there hidden messages beyond what’s being verbalized? Stop and listen fully when someone is talking to you, and wait until they finish speaking. Ditch multitasking, focus and stay in the moment. The crucial word is “focus” — bring your brain totally to the task, dodge distractions, pick up cues and be completely present to listen.

Connect emotionally. I liked Bradberry’s mention of Maya Angelou’s observation, “People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” In all conversations and particularly transmissions from leaders, we don’t walk away with words as much as we exit with emotion. How did their remarks make you feel? There must be an emotional connection for communication to click.

Drop the official façade and be transparent and human. Disclose what drives you, your values, vision and why you care. Don’t have a clue if you made an emotional connection with your team? There’s a good chance you didn’t. When a connection is made, you feel it; the feedback reflects it.

Read body language. Ever get the sense that people aren’t revealing what’s really on their minds? Even the best leaders cannot have the same level of openness with their employees that workers have with their peers. What to do? Become skilled at understanding unspoken messages.

Body language and vocal tone are windows to a wealth of continuous and copious detail. Deliberately watch body language during casual discussion and meetings where this type of tuning in yields quiet messages that are loud and clear. Consider what is not being said to uncover additional high-value indirect input.

Prepare your intent. For great oration it’s a super idea to be a good scout — always practice and be prepared. This means formulating a speech, as well as developing an emphasis for how you’ll impart meaningful information. Statements are persuasive and on point when you prepare your intent prior to imparting it. For all those overly confident, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types, take note: Your audience knows when you didn’t bother to practice and invest time in them and yourself with proper preparation.

Skip the jargon. Business jargon fills office interactions like the jar of jellybeans in the break room — everyone’s sharing and consuming plenty of flavors. Problem is, many leaders overuse lingo and run the risk of alienating subordinates and customers with the metaphor of the month.

Play it sincere by limiting your use of officespeak. You’ll come across as more genuine and certainly more connected then those who spew jargon. Side benefit: The fewer buzzwords you use, the stronger the likelihood that people will listen to the real message you deliver instead of ignoring the slang you slip into.

Practice active listening. You’ve heard this one, right? Active listening means you’re fully engaged and truly hearing the other person. Practice is needed to become skilled at this. A few tips:

  • Spend more time listening than talking and focus on the other person, not yourself.
  • Do not answer questions with questions or think about your next comment; this hinders your ability to pay attention.
  • Avoid finishing other people’s sentences, and never interrupt.
  • Reframe and restate what other people say to make sure you understood them correctly (I heard you say this — right?).
  • Think about what you’re going to say only after someone has finished speaking. Then ask plenty of questions.

Want to become an accomplished communicator? Start with two or three of the eight tactics and build until you’ve mastered them all. Avoid being sucked into a comfort level that allows a communication bias to muddle your message.

This applies to everyone, including blah blah blah from corporate executives, yada yada yada from religious leaders and yak-yakking family members. They’re all talking, but not all may be communicating.

Cut the chatter. Apply these techniques to create a continuously clean and crisp communication cadence. The benefits will quickly become clear as you increase the bona-fide connections you make in your future conversations.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at mary@masteryoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue.

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