Long reads

How to be a better communicator

29 Mar 2018 By Eleanor Whitehouse

From a clearer voice to better body language, People Management helps you to master the art of effective communication

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” Several decades later, Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, proved Wittgenstein right by combining the results of two of his studies from the late 1960s, and concluding that only 7 per cent of communication is made up of words – 38 per cent is tone of voice, and the other 55 per cent is body language.

While Mehrabian qualifies that these statistics are not applicable to every situation, the importance of body language – also known as kinesics – and voice in communication, particularly in business, has become increasingly apparent, and thousands of companies are investing in teaching their employees the art of communicating without words. 

“My typical client is someone moving up to senior management level, who suddenly finds they have to communicate with a much wider range of people,” says opera singer-turned-communications trainer at Executive Voice Susan Heaton-Wright. “I teach them the skills to be able to do this with confidence.”

HR professionals in particular rely on clear and compelling communication to get results and influence others. So how can you use what we know about verbal and non-verbal communication in your working life?

In difficult one-to-one conversations

As the department most likely to have to conduct a difficult conversation with an employee, it makes sense that HR professionals know how best to present themselves to avoid making an already difficult situation worse. “When having tricky conversations, the ultimate aim is for that person to still trust you when they leave the room,” says Harriet Heneghan, executive coach at Black Isle Group.

Showing emotional intelligence indicates that you understand and empathise. “Pause regularly to allow them to take stock, and ensure that you maintain eye contact during the pause,” says Heneghan. “You’re non-verbally asking them ‘can I go on?’ and showing that you’re listening to them.”

In such sensitive circumstances, what you do with your body also says a lot. “Stay professional and don’t look disengaged, even if the other person gets angry or upset,” advises Heaton-Wright. “I use the ‘sitting diva’ analogy – this means both your feet are on the ground, your chest is open and your upper body is upright, rather than leaning back in your chair. This shows you’re engaged and you’re empathising, and reduces the chances of the situation becoming confrontational.”

Vocally, maintaining a lower pitch – for women as well as men – helps you keep control. “If you are stressed, worried, anxious or angry, your voice naturally gets higher,” says Heaton-Wright. “Counter that by concentrating on speaking in a lower register – this will help create the impression that you’re managing the situation, even if you don’t feel like you are.”

On email

How do you communicate effectively when you have neither voice nor body language at your disposal? More than 200 billion emails are sent every day around the world, so it’s a medium that deserves to be used effectively. Experts highlight the importance of directness and brevity in communicating effectively via email. “The first rules of writing an email are to be clear and make it short, or it simply won’t be read,” says Heaton-Wright. “Everyone is busy, so you need to avoid unnecessary niceties and get to the point quickly.”

Sarah Archer, HR manager-turned-comedian and speaking coach at Lemon Squeeze, also advocates remembering that you – and the recipients of your email – are humans. “It might be a typed message instead of a face-to-face discussion, but you can still keep it conversational,” she says. “It shouldn’t be full of big words and corporate language. And never type in all capitals – you’re not shouting.”

Avoid unnecessary niceties and get straight to the point. And don't fill emails with big words and corporate language

When speaking in board meetings

All sorts of power dynamics come into play when you’re asked to address senior executives – particularly if it’s not a climate you’re comfortable in. Making sure you come across as confident is the key, and will ensure you have the desired impact on your audience. “Stand up when speaking to a room full of executives,” advises Heneghan. “This isn’t always a popular piece of advice, but it will shine the spotlight on you and give a better impression. You will have more control over who you engage with.”

If not used effectively, your voice and the words you choose can give you away if you feel nervous or overwhelmed; making sure you control your voice and choose the right words gives the impression of confidence, even if you don’t feel it. A 2017 study by the University of Stirling even found that people tend to talk to high-status individuals using a higher pitch, so controlling your vocals will imply confidence. “Just as with difficult meetings, keeping the pitch of your voice low will give an air of conviction, aided by using words like ‘I believe’ instead of ‘I think’,” says Heaton-Wright. Archer also recommends avoiding inflecting up at the end of every sentence, unless you’re asking a question: “This will make sure you don’t undermine your own presence, and give you more authority.” 

On the telephone

Communicating effectively over the phone brings its own set of challenges, predominantly because of the obvious lack of cues from body language or facial expressions. However, stance and posture should still be taken into account during phone conversations, says Heaton-Wright. “If your body is tense or closed, this will translate into your voice, and they will still be able to pick up on it,” she says. “You should maintain a good posture and an open chest, even though the other person can’t see you.”

The lack of facial and body cues also means the conversation should be taken at a slower pace, and you should check that the other party understands before moving on. “Speaking more slowly will give the other person a chance to process what you’re saying without visual cues,” says Heaton-Wright. Smiling while talking on the phone will also produce the best-sounding voice, adds Heneghan: “It’s cheesy, but ‘smiling and dialling’ will improve the tone of your voice and give a better impression.”

When presenting to a large group

The mere idea of speaking in front of a room full of strangers is enough to make some people’s palms sweat – it’s easy to let yourself be taken over by nerves. “All speaking is technically public speaking,” says Heaton-Wright. “A conversation between two people is public speaking, just on a smaller scale. We need to repackage the concept of public speaking and take away the element of fear.”

Heneghan recommends getting in the right frame of mind: “Rather than following specific body language instructions on what to do and not do when presenting, get your mindset right and your body will follow. This will be more natural and authentic – and therefore more engaging for your audience – than if you’ve been told to act a certain way.”

Heaton-Wright adds that a good posture will naturally make you feel more confident: “Keep your chest open and your head up. Being scared is OK, but avoid exhibiting signs of nervousness like wandering around the stage, or overusing your hands. Holding a clicker will give you something to do.”

Presenting to a large audience can provide its own vocal challenges – not least to make sure those at the back of the room can hear you. “Projecting your voice isn’t as difficult as some people think, and you don’t need years of training,” says Heaton-Wright. “Just relax your shoulders and neck, and imagine throwing your voice to where you want to it to be heard, like a tennis ball.” The same rules apply if you’re using a microphone: “Presenters still need to project, even if they’re wearing a microphone. It’s no excuse for talking quietly.”

Imagine throwing your voice to where you want it to be heard, like a tennis ball
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