- Many of us associate communication with anxiety, but this fear can be overcome.
- A selection of proven techniques can help us communicate with confidence in both planned and spontaneous speaking situations.
- From “chunking” content to crafting simple narratives, these practical communication tools can help pave the way to success.
Communication is critical to our success in both our personal and professional lives. Deals are won, relationships initiated, questions answered, and more, with the right kind of communication. We can all stand to benefit from honing and developing our communication.
Here are 5 key insights — and specific actions you can take — to help you become a more effective communicator.
#1 Recognize the “real vs feel gap”
Anxiety looms large in our communication. Most people report high levels of anxiety when speaking in high stakes situations. One huge source of that anxiety is the notion that others are evaluating and judging us. We become extraordinarily self-conscious, wondering how every last thing we say or do is registering with others. To mitigate this self-conscious feeling, we can remind ourselves of the “real vs feel gap” — the significant gap that exists between how we see things and how others see us doing those things. Others just don’t have nearly as good a read on our internal states as we think they do.
To reduce how intensely and deeply we perceive that others are judging us, we can make ourselves aware of this gap. Using your smart phone, record yourself responding to one of the following two prompts: “Tell a story about a project you’re working on at work” or “Talk about a personal goal you have that you want to achieve soon.” Keep your response short — about one to two minutes. When you’re done, play your response back. How nervous did you look? How nervous did you feel? When my students perform this exercise, they remark that they don’t look nearly as nervous as they felt. Their sense of feeling judged dissipates, leaving them calmer, more confident, and in control.
#2 Choose chunky over smooth
Attention is the most precious commodity that we have in the world today. Our attention is constantly being pulled in lots of different directions. We can help our audience focus on our communication by leveraging how we break up what we say. Psychology has taught us that we tend to remember what we hear/read first and last — primacy and recency effects. We can leverage these tendencies in how we lay out our content. Rather, than provide long lists of our ideas, we can chunk them up into self-contained units. For example, if you are pitching a product, you can articulate the problem, solution, and benefits. By chunking a message, we’re in effect creating multiple starting and ending moments, enabling your audience to stay more engaged throughout and to remember more of the overall message.
Take your talking points and logically group them modularly. Rather than walk through an entire development plan for example, you can talk about project initiation, development, testing, and implementation. Each of these parts will have its own beginning and ending. By chunking content in this manner, you make it easier on your audience to process, remember, and use.
#3 Adopt a “not yet” mindset
Many of us experience physical reactions to the prospect of speaking spontaneously or publicly — we retreat to a defensive posture, turning our camera off, folding our arms in front of us, or slouching. Our breath quickens, our vocal cords tighten, and our voice becomes shriller. Our tone comes across as defensive — rushed, curt, bothered, harsh — and the messages we convey become clipped, non-inclusive, distancing, and closed. This is because many of us unconsciously view communication as inherently challenging and threatening — a crucible in which we must defend and protect ourselves. We feel besieged and our thinking becomes myopic, rigid, defensive.
By reframing spontaneous communication as an opportunity to connect, collaborate, and learn rather than a threat, we can relax, let our personalities shine, and even have fun. Our focus expands as we entertain new and varied possibilities. We make our bodies physically bigger and more open, drawing closer to others and projecting a more intimate and engaging presence. Our tone sounds more confident, competent, and measured, and our messages become more empathetic, detailed, inclusive, and engaging.
One way to switch your mindset from threat to opportunity is to adopt a “not yet” attitude. You can potentially develop various aspects of communication; you just haven’t done it yet. Set realistic goals and delineate steps to achieve them. Take stock of your current proficiency and consider what kind of growth might be possible in the short and long term. Remind yourself that you might well achieve the improvement you seek if you keep trying. A “not yet” attitude also might lead you to pose helpful questions of yourself that could spur improvement. If you felt flustered during a question-and-answer session, you might ask yourself: Do I know anyone who handles Q&A well? Whom might I ask to provide feedback after my next Q&A session? Are there online resources, books, or podcasts that might provide me with helpful guidance?
#4 Craft a simple narrative structure
We humans are miserable at remembering information. We can barely hold more than seven distinct numbers in our heads at once, and we’re probably worse when it comes to remembering complex concepts. Our brains are designed to forget much of what we experience, filtering it out so that we can remember the important stuff. This filtering when paired with poor attention often leads our audiences to forget what we communicate. We can counter this tendency by crafting structured communication. A structure as I define it is a narrative or story that logically connects ideas with one another, organizing them into a beginning, middle, and end. Our brains are designed to seek out, enjoy, create, and remember structured narratives or stories. By structuring our communication as a logical sequence, we prime our messages to be noticed and remembered, both by us and our audiences.
Take the time to learn and practice a few structures that you can deploy for planned communication as well as spontaneous (e.g., Comparison—Contrast—Conclusion or Problem—Solution—Benefit). A great, simple, all-purpose structure is What—So What—Now What. Start by discussing an idea, topic, product, service, or argument (What). Then explain why it’s important, helpful, or useful—why it matters and is relevant (So what). End with what your audience should do from here with this knowledge — how they might apply it, what actions they should take, and so on (Now What). What—So What—Now What works wonders when giving feedback, updating a project, writing an email, etc. To get more familiar with and comfortable using structure, when you finish a book, podcast, or article, ask yourself: What was this about, why is this important, and how can you use this information? In effect, you’re filtering your reflection of the content through What—So What—Now What.
#5 Tell the time, don’t build the clock
The best, most powerful communication in both formal and spontaneous situations is clear and sharply focused. It conveys everything an audience needs to receive the speaker’s desired message — and only that information. It doesn’t distract audience members, bore them, or waste their time by using verbiage that is fuzzy, irrelevant, impossibly dense, acronym-laden, or long-winded. Concision makes messages easier to receive, as it activates fewer processing systems in the brain. Uttering fewer words will usually allow us to connect better with audiences and keep their attention. Audiences have little patience for bloated messages. We must ask ourselves: Is everything we’re saying — every idea, sentence, or word — really necessary? Or might we be able to convey even relatively simple, accessible concepts more quickly and efficiently without sacrificing clarity and relevance?
To help craft clear, concise messages, define a goal that helps you determine what is important to include and not include in your messages. A goal has three-parts: information, emotion, and action. In other words, what do you want your audience to know, feel, and do as a result of your communication. By defining each part of your goal, you can then hone and focus your message on what is relevant and necessary to share with your audience — nothing more and nothing less. The bottom line: Your goal helps you prioritize the information you convey so that you can be both precise and concise.
Our ability to communicate in a confident, compelling, and concise manner directly influences our ability to be successful in planned as well as spontaneous speaking situations. By using these techniques, we can all learn to think faster and talk smarter — in any situation.