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Five tips for improving your communications skills

How good are your communication skills? How often do you feel that misunderstandings get in the way of your personal relationships or your career? Do you ever avoid talking to people because you don’t know how to express what you feel, or because you are afraid that you will be misunderstood?

What if you could dramatically improve the effectiveness of your spoken and written communication? Would it increase your confidence when speaking to coworkers, friends, and romantic interests? Would you take more chances if you could speak directly to someone’s mind, almost as if you had a telepathic connection with your listener?

The problem with most people’s communication skills is that they think that it is an innate talent. They think that if you’re not a smart, good-looking extrovert with a good voice, you can never be a great communicator. It’s true that these things help. But just because you’re tall and have strong legs doesn’t mean that you can win a gold medal at the olympics. And even if you are short and weak by nature, doesn’t mean that you can’t double or triple your performance. Of course, no workout will make you two feet taller. But unlike your body, your brain is very flexible.

You might think that speaking is something we learn automatically, and don’t have much control over. It’s true that we learn how to talk automatically and subconsciously, just like we learned to run automatically. But, just as a trained athlete can run faster and longer than an amateur, so can a conscious effort to improve your skills vastly improve your performance.

I’m going to share some of the things I learned with you as a kind of test. If my ideas are any good, you will remember most of what I said. After you’re done watching, please leave a comment to let me know how I did.

The five tips are: less is more, use examples, no distractions, repeat, repeat repeat, and five or less.

One: Less is more.

Paying attention is hard. It takes an effort to follow what someone is saying. Don’t make that effort any harder than it absolutely has to be. Keep it simple. Keep it short. Keep it focused.

Long and unusual words take longer to recognize than smaller and more familiar words. Many people use a stilted academic tone when they have something important to say. Don’t do it. Don’t say comprehend, say understand, or follow, or just get. Don’t go on an harangue, tirade, or diatribe, go on a rant.

Same goes for sentence and paragraph size. Ditto for analogies and figures of speech. They need an extra mental cross-reference. Just say it. Don’t give me a piece of your mind. Just say it. And whatever you do, cut it out with the likes and the umms, and the you know. You need to take mental breaks when speaking, but just practice making them silent. Your perceived competency will immediately go up 50%. Yes, I just made that number up. Here’s another made up rule: if your finished work is not 30% shorter than your first draft, it’s too long.

Two: Use relevant visual examples.

Your brain is just a big network of triggers made up of images, sounds, tastes, and sensations. If you want me to remember what you said, you need to tie some of those triggers to what you just said. Use examples I know. If you want us to go out for sushi, remind me of the smoked salmon we ate last week. Yes, examples are not just for English class. See? That’s another one.

Good examples are about important things your audience is already familiar with. Don’t talk to young people about how you applied conflict resolution to your mother in law. Talk about your parents. Talk about shiny, fast, loud, dangerous, smelly things if you want to create strong mental triggers to your message.

Three: No distractions.

“Cue words” are concepts that can trigger emotional responses that block rational analysis. For example, democracy, Obama, guns, abortion. Just by saying those words, I’ve triggered a whole cascade of mental activity. Regardless of your political orientation, your mind is now busy trying to classify me into friend, enemy, or maybe just trying to think of something intelligent to say about them. Don’t distract me by mentioning things that trigger distracting emotional responses, or words with a whole host of irrelevant connotations. I’m not saying that you should not talk about controversial topics – just don’t distract the reader with them unnecessarily, even if you think he sides with you.

Four: Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Repetition is crucial to forming long-term memory. You’ve heard this before: say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said. Here’s an advanced trick: you can improve memorization by using spaced repetition. Make your point then repeat it with increasing intervals of time between each repetition.

Five: Five or less.

Most people can only keep a limited number of ideas in their immediate memory at once. Once they exceed that number, they are going to forget some of the things they learned. For most people, that number is five. So regardless of the topic, organize your presentation or argument so that you never list more than five items for any given category.

The five tips are: less is more, use relevant examples, no distractions, repeat, repeat repeat, and five points or less.

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