How to Improve Your Communication Skills

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Polls consistently show public speaking to be one of our biggest fears. Even training professionals well-versed in standing before delegates can face some butterflies before a big presentation. In this article, public speaking expert Vince Stevenson shares his advice on how to overcome any fears.

In my 30 years in industry, the issue of communication skills has always been a cause of concern.

A few years ago I was working on an IT project with some young guns in London. A meeting was called and the departmental head announced that he planned a seminar where each team leader would stand up and justify their team's existence.

After the spluttering and choking ended, I had never seen a room empty so quickly.

Most of these fellows had worked for the company for some time, were experienced professionals, and they should all have had the skills to comfortably overcome this hurdle.

But nobody wanted to present their case. Nobody wanted to stand up in front of their peers and sell themselves and their teams.

I had never heard so many excuses. Some were already saying that they wouldn't be available, even though a date for the seminar hadn't yet been set. Some decided to delegate the poisoned chalice to a subordinate.

Major problem

There really is a serious problem in our educational and business development, when experienced executives are unable to express themselves in public with confidence, coherence and clarity.

When the day of the seminar arrived, a number of team leaders were either ill, absent without leave or mysteriously whisked off to New York or Paris diligently pursuing their team's A-rated goals. No time for seminars.

The event was cancelled by the departmental head at great expense, and even greater embarrassment, and he resigned a month or so later.

Episode 10 of the BBC's The Apprentice demonstrated and encapsulated the problem. Two of the contestants, one with a BSc Honours in mathematics and one with an MA from Cambridge University, were given the challenge of presenting saleable products on a daytime TV channel. The poor results cost the channel thousands of pounds in losses.

One of the contestant's presentation of quite basic products resulted in an endless flurry of "OK, OK, OK, – right, yes, now, alright". And so it went on. She was like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an advancing truck.

The real problem is that we often mistake academic achievement for intelligence; we often mistake intelligence for charisma; and we often expect the intelligent and charismatic to be excellent communicators.

There is a problem – and as a business community, we must face up to it.

Lack of formal training

Poor communication costs the economy billions of pounds every year in terms of wasted time in meetings, briefings and more formal dissemination of verbal information. And yet we still expect our managers to be excellent communicators without any formal training.

Speaking is a skill and, like any other skill, it can be developed within a progressive programme which offers professional tools and a supportive learning environment.

I am not suggesting that confident verbal communication is easy. Studies show that talking in front of friends and colleagues is a leading fear. A key aspect of speaker coaching is to initially remove that fear factor in order to release the anxiety in the voice. If the speaker is nervous, that edginess will be conveyed to the audience.

"Studies show that talking in front of friends and colleagues is a leading fear. A key aspect of speaker coaching is to initially remove that fear factor in order to release the anxiety in the voice."

The voice is the speaker's primary tool of communication and it is an essential key to delivering a first class presentation. Coaching to develop the muscles that produce the voice is vital. The voice, when expertly used, is an infinitely expressive tool which adds colour, life and interest to the spoken word and it must be deployed to engage and retain audience interest.

Another important rule when delivering verbally is to know your material inside out. It was apparent that both the contestants in The Apprentice were struggling with the detail and when one of them made a good point, she would follow it up with the question tag - OK? When heard at the end of every sentence, this becomes incredibly tedious and was a major turn off for the audience.

The presentations also lacked structure and punch, but as neither could sell the benefits of the products, that wasn't surprising. As most of the detail was missing, they both struggled to speak with enthusiasm. If you're trying to sell something and you're not totally convinced by the product yourself, who is going to listen? And why should they?

Body language

So what can be done? Well, we use the tried and trusted research of US educational psychologist, Albert Mehrebian. Only seven per cent of what your audience remembers is the words, 38 per cent is tonal variety – pace, pitch, pause and volume control - and 55 per cent is body language. It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it. Utilising this formula helps the audience to retain your key messages.

We follow this up with innovative and cutting edge speaking scenarios relevant to the business sector of our clients. We closely observe the speaker and build on their natural abilities with an emphasis on enhancing the individual's unique communication style.

Although the application of effective speaking techniques is essential, it is the bond, the rapport, and that special relationship that the speaker's personality creates with the audience that will be different and memorable.

For more information, please visit: The College of Public Speaking

Vince Stevenson is a founder and lead trainer at the College of Public Speaking, a business dedicated to improving effective communication skills in industry. He is also an in demand after-dinner speaker.

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