Most of my work involving rate of speech is teaching my clients how to slow down and vary their pace.
Unless, of course, you’re this guy:
His diction and clarity is impeccable! This is motor mouth mastery, I tell you. And I still miss his 1980’s Micro Machines commercials.
Everyone who wants to speak in front of a group should learn how to dance.
You don’t have to learn how to dance well, but you should give it a try. Dancing teaches you how to take an aural expression of emotion (music and sometimes lyrics) and interpret it as a purely physical expression of emotion. You may have heard about Albert Mehrabian’s studies regarding the importance of non-verbal communication in message delivery.* Your physical expression can have a huge impact on the message you are getting across, and learning to dance teaches you how to maximize the power of physical expressiveness.
Dance lessons and exploration can be even more important for people who are shy or naturally guarded with their expressions. When you tend to restrict your movement or control your face when speaking with someone, being required to use only your body to emote can be enormously freeing. Communication breakthroughs happen when you discover how you can demonstrate incredibly specific and powerful thoughts in, for example, the way you raise your arm or move your hand and fingers. It also teaches us to be comfortable with our bodies, aware of how they move and how much control we can exert over them. For someone who is uncomfortable in their own skin, overly concerned about where they put their hands when speaking to an audience, or mistrustful of the signals their expression might send, dance lessons can give permission to explore their expressive bodies in a safe environment.
There is also a marvellous language boost to be had. We’ve all been in situations where you have something you desperately want to communicate, but can’t say out loud. Dance can teach you how to deliver unvoiced messages with a tilt of a head, a shoulder shrug, a glance, or even a subtle change in your posture. Are you in a meeting where you want the committee chair to be aware that you are not in agreement with a point of discussion, but due to office politics or hierarchy you can’t come out and say it directly? Imagine being able to get that point across by slightly shifting your position in your chair and changing the angle at which you hold your head and neck. The effect can be incredible! What’s more, you learn how to be in control of this sort of communication. This means you also learn to control your body enough to prevent you from physically betraying thoughts you would prefer to keep hidden.
I’ve taken classes in several dance forms – ballet, jazz, ballroom, hip-hop – but the one that I’ve stuck with and that has had the greatest impact on me has been belly dance, particularly raqs sharki (classical Egyptian style). I started belly dancing over six years ago as a way to get back into shape, and since then I’ve participated in festivals, been a member of a performing troupe, and have done solo performances at local Greek and Lebanese restaurants. When I started dancing I was hardly thinking of it as a method of improving my communication. Later, when I started coaching interpersonal communications, I was floored at the impact it had on my methods and techniques. When performing belly dance, I was stripped of my verbal skills and had to communicate the message of the music – often sung in languages neither I nor my audience understood (if I did, it was because I found a translation of the lyrics) – through gesture and expression. A hip drop, an arm raise, an arabesque, a longing glance became key communication tools.
It hardly matters what style of dance you try, they’ll all require you to listen to some music and then respond to or interpret it with your body. They’ll all involve emotion and expression. I’ve learned loads from every style I’ve tried out, and I do believe there’s a style out there for everyone. You just need to be willing to explore.
Just like with exercises, you might have already thought up of a hundred excuses why you can’t try dance. Let me address a few of them up front:
I’m not in good enough shape/too old/too uncoordinated/too overweight/don’t have enough rhythm/etc to dance!
I’m too self conscious to dance!
I don’t have time to dance!
I can’t afford lessons!
I hate dancing!
Be willing to dance!
If you want some inspiration, I strongly recommend checking out the following TED presentation by the LXD (The League of Extraordinary Dancers). The descriptions of the dance artists is positively moving.
*It is worth noting that Mehrabian’s work is frequently misinterpreted; excessive emphasis is places purely on the physical message rather than on the value of the actual words. Words and body are both extremely important, and the degree to which one plays a greater influence depends on the speaker and the message.
When getting clients to emote more effectively, I often rail at them to go completely over the top with the melodrama. Lay it on thick like spackle, wring every possible drop of emotion out of the words, free your spirit and let your inner ham out!
Canadian acting legend Gordon Pinsent provides a beautiful example of this kind of dramatic reading, using the timeless words of The Beiber:
Brilliance! Sheer brilliance, I tell you!
Despite all best efforts, some people are simply difficult to communicate with. You’ve likely met a difficult communicator; no matter how hard you try, they seem to miss chunks of conversations. No matter how clear the note, they still twist the message. No matter how explicit the instructions, they still manage to screw them up. It doesn’t seem to matter what type of communication you use, how quickly or slowly you speak, how many metaphors or descriptions you provide, or how transparent and clear-cut your writing is.
I’ve got a few ideas of my own as to why certain people are persistently difficult to communicate clearly with:
1: They habitually fail to pay focused attention to the person or item at hand.
This is a big problem in an age where information flies at us a mile a minute, where we are in a perpetual state of stimuli overload, and where people are proud that they can “check emails and have a conversation at the same time” (hint: they can’t). After a while, having a fractured attention span that wanders from one thing to the next – even if it is only wandering to the chattering in the person’s own head – becomes habitual. This is a habit we need to break. Focus and attention span is something that can be improved through concerted effort and mindfulness, but it is possible. This is something that I myself am working on improving, and while it might not be easy, it is rewarding.
2. They have an agenda they are pursuing.
Realistically, we are all pursuing our own agendas at all times. These agendas can be completely benign (I’m hungry, so I’m going to bring this conversation to an end so I can eat), altruistic (I want to help this person), or more…suspect (use your imagination). Depending on the urgency and prevalence of that agenda, communications can very easily be twisted to ensure that the person hears or reads what they need to hear or read at the time. With some people and in certain situations or organizations, this can colour just about any communication instance.
3. They do not feel you have anything of interest or worth to say.
This is pretty self-explanatory, and can be due to myriad issues. At any rate, the person simply becomes accustomed to filtering out what you say. This can be seen in situations where weak leadership has lead to mistrust or downright dismissal of just about anything a manager could have to say.
4. They’re paranoid.
We’ve all encountered at least one person who interprets just about anything directed at them to be either an insult, a threat, or at the very least something that contains subtext of which they must be deeply suspicious. I find this is usually paired with either whipcrack tempers or with timidity and low confidence.
5. It’s not them…it’s you/me!
This is a tricky one; if it seems like everyone is impossible to communicate effectively with, or if you never have a good reasonable chat with a person, the issue might be looking at you from a mirror. Look for the common denominator – if you have trouble with everyone, is it likely that the whole world is made up of crappy communicators except yourself? If you are the only person in an organization who persistently has a major communication hang-up with a particular individual, does that mean that the individual is a good communicator with everyone except you? Admitting that the problem may be us is difficult, but the good news is that means it is possible for us to change the situation. Maybe you need to get to know the other person better and develop more understanding of their mannerisms. Maybe you need to improve certain areas of your communication style to ensure you are giving the message you need. Either way, changing ourselves is a lot easier than changing other people!
You know the person who has all the right moves but for some reason gives you the heebie-jeebies? I can guarentee that they’re doing something that you may not be able to specifically peg but that your subconscious really, really dislikes. The person who is rubbing you the wrong way may be saying all the right things, but something about the way they are behaving just doesn’t add up.
I will admit that I get great enjoyment out of spotting discordant messages coming from people whose words and body language are out of synch. This is even more fun when they are trying to further protect themselves by delivering veiled messages at the same time.
Want to give it a try? Here’s a beautiful – if somewhat glaring example. This is an episode of the CBC show Marketplace:
Pay attention to the final segment of the show, where the reporter is grilling a hospital big-wig in charge of monitoring cleanliness in hospitals in the Niagara, Ontario region. All the fun occurs between 18:20 and 21:20.
Oooh, it’s delightful! I’d love to know your thoughts on the big-wig’s performance.
Many people have a funny habit of apologizing and downplaying their thoughts and opinions the moment they begin to voice them. I first noticed this trend a few years ago while sitting in a meeting, and I have become acutely aware of it ever since. It is highly likely that you do this without even realizing it; I know I certainly have.
What do pre-emptive apologies and downplays sound like? Here are a few examples:
Okay, that last one was a little ridiculous, but I have heard phrases like it so often that I wonder how anyone is capable of taking anyone else seriously. What’s more, we exacerbate the deference with non-verbal signals. These types of phrases are generally accompanies by supplicating or defensive gestures such as placing a hand on one’s heart, shrugging, holding hands in supine (palms up), or in a staving-off position (hands raised, palms facing out towards the other person like the speaker is keeping that person away)
The frequency with which we pre-emptively water down the potential impact of our words is astounding. What’s more, we do this not only in social situations where we are trying to be friendly, but in all areas – including business situations. Watching this practice is business is particularly worrying to me, as it can negatively impact the impression we give of our own confidence, competence, and decisiveness.
I think we need to stop this self-deprecating verbal nonsense.
“But Lauren,” I hear someone cry, “we’re only being polite when we use openers like that! We don’t want to seem bossy or pushy – we’re just softening our words.”
I’m willing to give a little bit of credence to that explanation. Sometimes we do need to soften our openers, particularly when we are dealing with high-strung people who will either bite your head off or burst into tears at the slightest hint of opposition. Generally, however, what we are really doing is protecting ourselves from risk.
Voicing our thoughts and opinions exposes us to a considerable amount of risk. We risk being wrong, possibly losing credibility with our group. We risk being right, which may result in us having to take on the responsibility of acting on or supporting our idea. We risk being objectionable, which may result in members of the group rejecting us as well as our opinion. We risk experiencing emotional pain or discomfort of some variety or another. Most people tend to avoid that like the plague.
Unfortunately, the downside of speaking your mind can be very evident in every day exchanges. People who may be ruffled by that opinion will insert snide comments: “Tell us what you really think!” People who feel insecure around people who express themselves confidently will deride the confident person behind their backs: “Well, they certainly have opinions.” You have probably both heard and said these things; I certainly have. Next time you hear or say these, watch what happens to the conversation. Pre-emptive apologies will abound as people avoid giving their risky opinion.
But as with most things in life, no risk usually equals no reward. The meek don’t get hired into positions of authority, the uncertain don’t make the sale, and the apologetic become doormats. If you want to be polite, you can do so without resorting to diminishing your opinions. Politeness tends to come across more in tone of voice and body language than it does through actual words. Ever wonder why there are some people who can get away with saying outrageous things yet still manage to stay at the top of our “people we really like” list? Watch them closely next time you are around them; you might start to notice key differences in their vocal tone and body language that ensures their audience remains comfortable despite what is being said. It’s a masterful social skill and often occurs quite subconsciously.
So how do we stop using diminishing expressions when we’re giving our ideas or opinions? In terms of vocabulary, it’s pretty straightforward: stop attaching words like “just” and “only” to words like “my opinion” or “my thoughts” or “idea.” Get to your point, don’t beat around the bush, and for heaven’s sake don’t apologize for being a thinking human being. Keep your voice polite and your body non-aggressive. The apologizing is a hard habit to break, but it is worthwhile to be able to leave it behind in most situations and pull it out when circumstance warrants its use.
I’m frequently asked what the most important skill in speaking is. It’s pretty simple: listening. I’m not being trite or spouting cliches! To be a good speaker, you must be a good listener. You need to listen with your ears, eyes, and brain – and not always in that order. Really skilled communicators, really dynamic and engaging speakers are the way they are because actively and intimately listen to and observe their intended audience. By giving his audience – be it one or many – his full attention, a speaker is able to figure out what the audience needs to perceive, needs to feel, needs to hear in order to adopt the speaker’s line of thought.
In short, the speaker has to know what his audience wants and how to connect the audience’s wants with his own desired outcome. But outside of asking someone flat-out (and hoping that they actually know what they want and are answering truthfully), how can we figure out what their needs and desires are?
Again, you achieve this by listening. I use the word ‘listening’ to encompass visual information as well as auditory information because really listening to someone involves more than just sensory hearing. It involves shutting off your own internal monologue so that you can take in as much information as possible while being sensitive about what it tells you about the other person.
People provide a huge number of clues about themselves by their manner of dress, their body language, their words, their voice, and more. Are they conservative or trendy dressers? Do they sound nervous or confident? Are they making steady eye contact or regularly looking away? What is their voice quality? What sort of words are they using? Do they seem forthcoming with information, or are they being reluctant or cagey with their answers? Are they focused or distracted?
This can be done with an entire audience, albeit in a slightly different way. You can get a ‘feel’ for an audience if you allow yourself to take in their group behaviour. Is there a lot of shuffling or chatting? Are people focused on you? Are they leaning forward and interested, or do they seem aloof? Are people laughing in the right places or responding when you call on them? How are they connected to one another, what commonality has brought this group together?
Listen. Listen closely and carefully. As I said, this is pretty simple, but like many simple things it isn’t easy. It takes close attention, focus, patience, and practice. The rewards, however, are powerful.