How important is communication? Being in IT, I work with a lot of developers, technical architects, and folks whose first language is not English. First and foremost, I wrote this post for people in the North American corporate world, where the primary language of business is English. However, I still think that even if you’re in other parts of the world, the concepts here still apply. Just replace the word English, with the primary language where you operate.
In the last few weeks, I noticed something that was perhaps there all along. I noticed how poorly people write. Now, granted I do work with people who have been evaluated mostly for the quality of their code. Being able to put together a working computer program does not require one to be grammatically proficient. But this excuse only goes so far. I don’t care what your area of work is, you need to be able to communicate clearly. If you want to move to the next step in your career, be it on the corporate ladder, or being in business for yourself (especially being in business for yourself), you need to convey your message effectively. I refer to both writing and speaking.
For today, let’s talk about The Talk
As you know, I co-host The Art of Consulting Podcast. In the last few weeks, we have been busy preparing for the launch of our first course that teaches people how to leave their jobs and become independent, self-employed contractors. We recorded a webinar. It took a mere 45 minutes to record; it took the following 3 hours to edit. This isn’t surprising. In any video production, it always takes at least twice as long to edit, and usually more. As I was going through our presentation, I realized that both Andy and I stumble over our words. A lot. And our first language is English. It then dawned on me that it doesn’t actually matter what your first language is. If you don’t practice speaking, you will suck at it.
The good news is that the skill of speech is completely trainable. It’s one of the easiest things to strengthen. Remember, it was one of the first things you picked up when you were born. It’s almost like you have a ‘speaking’ muscle. The more you speak, the better you speak. Andy and I then discussed this as we recorded our next podcast episode. We came up with a few ideas in order to train your ‘speaking’ muscle. None of it requires you to join Toastmasters, which of course, is an excellent way to improve your speaking skills. (Incidentally, if said speaking muscle were really a physical part of our bodies, I’m convinced that it would be in our ears…. I digress.)
What can we do to Work Out our Speaking Muscle?
1. Read Out Loud for 15-20 Minutes, 3 times a Week
Andy’s friend, who is a rabbi, gifted him this solution. To get over the stumble, all we have to do is read a book out loud for at least 15 – 20 minutes. Do this a few times a week. It’s a pretty easy habit to kick. For those of us who have small children, we likely already have the perfect opportunity. We read bedtime stories every night. The old adage applies: practice makes perfect. While we hardly need to go for perfection, I’m sure you’ll agree that the more opportunity that we get to do something – anything, the more comfortable we’ll be.
The implicit benefit to this exercise is that we will start to incorporate more inflection in our speech. Inflection means that instead of speaking in a monotone, there is actually some expression to our voice. Why is that important? If you want people to pay attention to you, instead of automatically tuning you out, vary your inflection. We’ve all experienced it all before. We’re in a conference call, and the facilitator is droning on and on about today’s agenda and status meeting. We’re trying really hard to listen, but all we really want to do is hang up and put this guy out of his misery. If we translated his speech with a piano, we’ll only need the one note. Inflection is what keeps people engaged. It’s what keeps people attentive and listening to us. When we communicate our message emphatically, people get us. They listen. They comprehend our message.
2. Speak More Slowly
This is one to which I succumb often. My brain works quickly. My mouth can’t catch up. The result? The syllables get all jumbled as they emerge from my lips. I get way too excited. I am afraid that if I don’t get it out right now, I will lose my thought, which often happens. Most of us naturally speak quickly. Add to that a state of nervousness and unfamiliarity and where we think that people are judging us, we speed up even more. So, slow…. down…. You actually have to consciously slow your words down. Even when you think you’re speaking way too slow, the message that actually comes out is that of a natural pace that is easy to comprehend.
3. Give Yourself Time: Write it Down
I used to play competitive badminton. One of the mental rules that we always had to keep in mind was to “Hurry up and get there. Then take your time to play.” The same applies to speaking. Often, we have a fleeting thought. We feel the need to get it out before it escapes us. So, write it down. Jot down a couple keywords so you remember. Once you do that, you can take your time to play. Your mind can relax that the thought won’t go away. The message that comes out is well formulated because you had those extra few milli-seconds to process it.
4. Do annunciation exercises.
I’m sure this isn’t anything new to you. I’m sure you’ve seen that when actors prepare themselves before their act on stage, they do annunciation exercises. They warm up their tongue, and their facial muscles. It’s not to say that we need to do this every morning before we go to work, although, can you imagine how well you would speak if you did? In any case, here are some quick vocal exercises you can try:
Simply repeat the following phrases 10 – 15 times:
“The Lips. The teeth. The tip of the tongue.”
“Octopi occupy a porcupine’s mind.”
“Some shun sunshine. Do you shun sunshine?”
“Venti, Grande, Tall – Very Grand Words for Large, Medium, Small.”
“Xylophones exist or so existentialists insist.”
(A shout out to https://www.thoughtco.com/enunciation-exercises-for-drama-teachers-2712994) for these fun tongue exercises!)
But how many of us actually treat our next presentation like a major motion picture event? Few, if anyone. I challenge you to do this. “Oh, but Cat, who has the time to do all this?” I’m scrambling to get my act together as it is. Well… you’re probably right. Why bother? Again, you’re right. Most people won’t bother. But then again, most people aren’t successful, are they? Most people are average. That’s why they’re most people. And hey, if you feel the need to be just average, just get by, that’s your prerogative. Just go back to sleep. This isn’t for you.
But I think you’re better than that. I think that if you’re reading this, you have that star potential. It might lay dormant inside of you, or you have already woken the giant. And now you can show the world that you are a force of nature.
“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
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