Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, December 08, 2006

How to Communicate More Effectively

I always like to start articles like this by highlighting the word "effectively." What I'm trying to get across is, communicating in a way that works. Something that is effective is something that works the way it is meant to. Well, what do I mean by communication working. First, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish with your communication. Communication that works is communication that accomplishes whatever you set out to accomplish. Simple enough. That's how we can gauge how effectively we are communicating. Example: The other day I was on the phone trying to give computer advice to a friend. My friend, whose goal was to tell me what was going wrong, said "It's not working right." OK, that really didn't help me much. My friend's communication was ineffective. I had to say "Describe in detail what you are trying to do, what you did, what you see on the screen, etc." In this case, the ineffective communication just took up time (and, I will admit, some of my patience...I have to work on that). But what happens when your communication is more important? Say you need to communicate to your employer that you are unhappy about a situation at work. Or you are trying to explain to the customer service rep on the phone why you need to get that refund. In these situations, and many just like them, you need to communicate effectively. So here are some very useful tips:

Some General Principles

Know when to keep your mouth decisively shut. There are times when you need to sink your teeth into your tongue, as they say, until the blood trickles down your throat. People tend to assume that you are wise beyond your years when you say nothing. I had an employee once who would not contribute his opinion in meetings until everyone else had had their say. Then we would all turn to him and say "Sam, what do you think?" We'd then wait eagerly for his cogent comments to flow forth.

Keep your emotions in check. This doesn't mean you have to have the affect of a mannequin. But you need to keep a clear head, always. Strong emotions cloud judgment. Angry people say things they later regret, and an angry tone does not engender cooperation from others (unless you also have a big stick).

Cut the fat out. People waste a lot of words. For instance, the word "like." And the phrase "You know." Then there is "whatever," sometimes added to another "whatever" to create the ultra lazy "whatever whatever." Whatever that means. All these extraneous words are simply the lazy person's means of avoiding having to find the right word. Speech becomes cluttered and imprecise (not to mention annoying...there's that patience problem again). Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.

Use correct grammar. It's not "Me and Lisa went to the movies." (It's pretty easy to figure out whether to use "I" or "me," "he" or "him," etc. Just take the other person out of the sentence and see which pronoun fits. Did me go to the movies, or did I? Why use correct grammar? You will appear to be smarter and better educated (assuming you're in a situation where that's actually advisable).

Be positive without being a patsy. Wherever you can, take a positive tack. They say you should be nice to everyone because you never know if you'll be working for them someday. I don't know about that (the universe isn't that cruel, I hope), but negativity tends to attract negative things. Being upbeat and positive in your speech not only brings out people's better natures, but it will beneficially affect your own attitude as well. This doesn't mean you have to agree with everyone, or go along. You can say no and still be nice about it. Whenever a telemarketer slips through my phone defense systems, I let them get out a sentence (just enough for me to be sure it's not Aunt Judy), then I say, in a very friendly voice, "I'm not interested, but thanks anyway!" Then I hang up before they can get out the next line in their sales script. I'm not a patsy, but I'm positive (-ly not interested).

So far I've been sharing tips that apply across the board, but a few have to do with public speaking in particular:

Public Speaking

I've spoken to groups from 5 to 5,000, and while they're different in some respects, they're similar in many others. Most of the time if you're speaking to a group in a formal setting, you will have prepared your comments beforehand. Some speakers prefer to memorize their speeches. Cicero, the Roman senator, would never deliver a speech with notes in his hand; they were memorized so well that they seemed extemporaneous. I have always preferred to have prepared comments with me, but maintain the flexibility to ad lib if the situation called for some diversion from my notes. A few pointers:

Don't say in 20 words what can be said in 10. Please, have mercy on your listeners. Don't waste words; let each one have its purpose and use only as many as you need. Be precise. It's unlikely that your audience is as enthralled by the sound of your voice as you are.

Don't repeat yourself. Poor public speakers don't take enough care to prepare their words, so they are terribly insecure about whether or not they've said what they needed to say. Thus, they say it again and again and again. Makes you want to bellow, "I GET IT!!! ENOUGH ALREADY!!"

Avoid cliches like syphilis. If it's been said before a million times, find a different way to say it.

Tell stories. Someone said that illustrations are like windows, letting light in. Stories, personal experiences, illustrations, make a speech interesting. Just say the words, "I remember" and see your audience perk up.

And finally, Move your arms! Learn to use gestures that emphasize your words. Mechanical motions (I'm thinking of a recent candidate for President) detract, but appropriate gestures add to your speech.