Are You a Good Communicator, or Just a Good Speaker?

Prague Leaders Magazine, May 2010

For at least five thousand of years, people have used public speaking as a means of persuasion. Today, public speaking continues to thrive as the dominant form of communication in several facets of society – politics, education, business, government and law.

If you were offered the chance to attend a workshop that would enhance your professional life, which topic will you choose? If you are like most people, chances are it would be public speaking, consistently the most popular workshop topic. And, if you are like most people, you have probably devoted more time learning about public speaking than about communication itself.

Many people have learned the basic rules of public speaking and presentation skills, and what to do when speaking in front of a group. How many of us, though, apply the same rigor to our everyday one-on-one communication? Not the water-cooler chat or catching up on yesterday’s scores, but the emails and phone calls and discussions we have for the purposes of driving our company or personal agendas forward.

When you know how to communicate effectively in those situations, your self confidence increases and you develop stronger relationships that improve both your professional and personal life. And since communication affects every aspect of life – from how we are socialized to the brand of shampoo we use, our challenge is to become more competent communicators by learning to interact in ways that are appropriate and effective.

We can do much of that by applying the disciplines of public speaking to communication. Of course, unlike the case with a prepared speech, we don’t always get to plan everything we want to say in casual situations. But, as with a formal presentation, it’s still important to know your audience, what message you want to convey, how best to convey that message, and to be able to assess whether or not you were understood.

Once you know these things, you have a foundation from which to build your communication. Then it’s a matter of doing your homework, creating the right message, using the proper delivery system, and assessing feedback.

To get started, it’s best to follow the advice of Stephen Covey, author and leadership authority, to “begin with the end in mind.” Knowing the goal of your communication – the result you want it to have – allows you to focus on the other important criteria for effective communication.

Questions to ask before starting to communicate

  • What do I want this message to achieve?
  • Who is my audience and what do they need to know?
  • What is my message and what tone will make it most effective?
  • What is the best communication channel for my message?
  • How will I know if my message has been understood?

Knowing your audience – not just what their job is or their relationship to you, but also their motivations and mindsets, can be critical to communicating effectively. Advertisers know this very well, and spend a great deal of money researching their audiences, to make sure their messages are delivered in the right way.

It’s even more important for you, since you are going to see the people you communicate with on a regular basis, and all of them (yes, all of them) can affect your future. So you are responsible for communicating with them in clear and effective manner. To achieve this, you need to consider not only what you will say, but also how it will be received.

Factors that affect how a message is received

  • The words you use
  • The tone of your message
  • The timing of your delivery
  • The recipient’s mood

Many messages have been sunk by words and tone, and more than enough has been said by others about those two factors. Timing, though, can be just as critical. For example, if you need something important taken care of before the week is over, communicating that after lunch on Friday is not likely to produce the desired result. Even if it does, there will certainly be lingering repercussions.

Your recipient’s mood will also play a large role in how your communication is received. It’s always best to get a feel for that, especially if what you need to communicate is of a serious or censorious nature. No matter how careful you are with your words and tone, a person who is stressed or in a bad mood is not going to hear you the way you expect them to.

What is the best way to send your message?

In addition to the factors already discusses, in order to maximize your communication opportunity you need to choose the appropriate communication channel.

For simple and quick information email is often now the most practical channel. However, for more complex issues, email might lead to more questions. Picking up the phone or engaging someone face-to-face might be a better choice in those circumstances. The telephone might also be an option for more personal exchanges, because your voice imparts tone that written communication often cannot.

The most challenging communications, such as negotiations or reprimands, are best handled face-to-face, so that all feedback channels are available and you can adjust your words, tone and body language to greatest effect. Keep these factors in mind when deciding which communication channel is best:

  • How much detail you need to provide
  • The sensitivity and emotional content of the subject.
  • The receiver’s communication style (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, detail-oriented, global)
  • How much time can or is the receiver willing to devote to your message

How can you be sure your message got across?

Without feedback you can never be sure that people have understood your message. One of the quickest feedback methods is to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers – some people prefer to be polite rather than to be honest.

The most “honest” feedback is usually shared though body language. According to Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, 55% of our communication is done via our body. Our bodies are the most important source of clues to the effectiveness of our communication, because they reveal things unconsciously. By carefully watching the facial expressions, gestures and posture of the person you’re communicating with, you will be able to notice:

  • How engaged they are with your communication
  • Whether they understand you or don’t fully grasp what you are trying to say
  • Whether they agree with you or not and will respond as desired

As a speaker, understanding your listener’s body language can give you an opportunity to adjust your message and make it more understandable, appealing, or interesting. As a receiver/listener, the way the person speaks and moves can tell you a lot more about what the other person is saying. You can then ask questions to ensure that you have, indeed, understood each other. In both situations, you can better avoid miscommunication.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Becoming a competent communicator requires discipline and ongoing practice. You must be motivated to modify your current ways of communicating, learn more about the communication process and continually apply your knowledge. Not only will you then be able to send the right message in an appropriate manner, but you will also better understand the messages you receive.

It’s not so hard to do and it will eventually become second nature for you. The end result? Increased self confidence and stronger relationships that improve both your professional and personal life.