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Eight Steps to More Confident Communication

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Communicating effectively is important for any leader. Whether it’s with employees, customers or as a community member, leaders are frequently placed in situations where good communication skills are a positive asset. However, confident communication is a trait that many people would admit they need to hone. 

“Most people have never had a class. Most have never been taught. They don’t have a starting point,” says Jan Fox, founder of Fox Talks, a public speaking program.

Patrick Donadio, a leadership development and business communication skills coach, agrees. 

“There’s a science and an art to it,” he says. “I think what leaders need to understand is that there’s definitely a process that goes into being an effective communicator.”

That being said, that process isn’t as overwhelming as it seems. There are many tips and tricks of the trade to improving your communication skills.

Fox, Donadio and Elaine Dumler, founder of Frankly Speaking, all experts in communication and leadership development, share their top tips to properly conveying your ideas, making yourself better understood and leading meetings with more confidence. 

1.) Hone in on your message. Donadio says that the first step to effective communication is to make sure you thoroughly understand what you’re trying to communicate. Before a meeting or any interpersonal interaction, take a minute to think about what you want to say.

“If it’s not clear to you, then you can’t clearly communicate it,” he says. “The leader needs to think about what they want to say. You want to think about, ‘What’s my intention for this communication? What do I want to have happen?’” 

Donadio says that focusing your conversation can avoid miscommunications or vague conversations. Conversely, he also suggests not thinking for too long before having a conversation.

“Introverts sometimes don’t speak up soon enough and tend to think too much,” he says. “If you’re an introvert, there’s a chance you should have had this conversation a week ago. It’s about knowing who you are and balancing out your strengths and weaknesses.”

In addition, Dumler says this is a good time to make sure your tone is correct. Difficult conversations, in particular, can be easily misconstrued due to an unintended tone. 

2.) Know to whom you are speaking. It’s important to tailor your message to your audience and its level of understanding. For example, employees will have a higher level of understanding when it comes to industry language, while a customer may not. If you’re holding an all-staff meeting, it might be wise to stay away from technical jargon because front-office staff may not have a high level of understanding.

“You need to be willing to listen to what it is they’re saying to determine the level of understanding,” Dumler says.

Dumler also cites the “platinum rule” as an important part of this tip: Treat people the way they want to be treated. Consider if the person is an extrovert or introvert, analytical or relational. This will dictate how you craft your message, the questions you ask, and any execution that may need to occur. For example, Donadio says someone who is analytical will want a lot of data, while a relational personality might want an example or story.

3.) Ask better questions. Donadio says that leaders can often come across as “autocratic,” meaning they hand down orders, rather than open a dialogue. 

“With a lot of employees today, that doesn’t work,” he says. “Sometimes leaders don’t ask any questions. Asking good questions is a really important skill to figuring an issue out.” 

He says the key to asking good questions is to understand the type of person you are communicating with. With an extrovert, you might need to ask more direct questions, such as “What are the top two things you are concerned with?,” while open-ended questions might work better with an introvert.

With an employee, Dumler says that you need to present communication as a two-way street.

“A lot of times employees don’t feel a part of the communication,” she says. “They want to know, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Rather than immediately taking the reins, Donadio suggests “diagnosing” before “prescribing.” 

“I think a lot of times leaders feel the need to go first,” he says. “Ask them questions. It will produce a much better conversation.”

4.) Use active listening. All three experts agree that active listening is the foundation of effective communication.

“When you ask good questions, you have to be a good listener,” Donadio says. “Because everyone is so impatient today, we often ask a good question and don’t really listen to the answer.” 

Donadio suggests turning your phone and email off, making eye contact, nodding or offering verbal cues to let the other person know that you are listening. 

“These are the physical responses to active listening,” Dumler says. “The listening part is 70 percent of getting the point across.”

According to Dumler, listening actively and respectfully also means not rushing the conversation. 

“How often do you have people who are a little rushed and talking over your shoulder or answering questions from other people?” she says. 

5.) Check for understanding. Donadio says that the biggest challenge with communication is that the messages are interpreted by the receiver. In fact, he says some studies show that 70–95 percent of your message is screened by your receiver; it is especially important to check for understanding. 

“You might assume that you’ve communicated very effectively,” Donadio says. “They’re not really listening and assume that people get it. But they might interpret it completely differently.”

There are four ways to ensure your message has been interpreted correctly: 

1. Try the rephrasing technique by stating back to the person, in your own words, what you understand the issue to be.

2. The unloading technique is a way of asking questions up front to get the other person to clarify before the conversation starts. Donadio says it’s a way of making sure you’re on the same page.

3. If you’re speaking to a large group, leave time at the end for questions, check in throughout the presentation or do a short summary at the end of
the presentation. 

4. In an email, try using the subject line of the email as a way to set the intention. Instead of just saying “Hello,” write “Information about Thursday’s meeting a 4 p.m.” “That’s like reading the headline of a newspaper,” Donadio says. “You know what the story is about.” In addition, limit the points you want to make in an email so there is less room to misinterpret the point of
the communication. 

6.) Activate the Message. To make sure you’re grabbing people’s attention, you need to bring the message to life. Activating the message involves adding an element of unpredictability. When engaged in a one-on-one conversation, make sure your hands follow your words to add visual interest.

“If you talk about a serious problem, your hands say serious problem. If you’re talking about the shop down the street, you point to the shop down the street,” Fox says. “They don’t just hang by your side, don’t do the belly button trick where they clasp in front of your belly button. You try to let your hands augment your words with the visual.”

In a large meeting, make sure you’re not talking for the entire hour. Instead, use a PowerPoint presentation or written agenda, don’t stand in one spot or pace in a pattern, or take a moment and ask the group to turn to the person next to them and see if they can explain the new policy you’ve introduced to your neighbor.

7.) Make small speak tweaks. Fox says that most people are afraid of speaking in public because they think they need a complete overhaul to improve.

“They don’t,” she says. “Most people only need a few tweaks and all of a sudden the confidence comes.”

In fact, Fox names four small tweaks that can have a large impact: 

1. Make good eye contact. Fox says to ignore the old tropes about eye contact and instead aim for the pupils. 

2. Get out of the “speaker bell.” Don’t stay in one spot the whole time or pace in a pattern, both of which can cause nerves. Instead, move freely and if possible, avoid using the podium.

3. Pay attention to your voice. Fox says any voice tics are fixable. Practice making sure your voice doesn’t go monotone or start high and go low. She says one of the easiest ways to fix this is to let your voice come out with your breath. 

4. If you frequently use filler words like “um,” “err,” “like,” or “stuff like that,” Fox has a simple solution: Shut your mouth. “You think with your mouth shut and then say your thought,” she says. 

8.) Find opportunities to practice. One of the problems with public speaking is that many people find few opportunities to practice. Fox suggests taking three or four of the above tips and prioritizing them one at a time.  

Fox says one of the best places to practice is your car. Practice your voice inflection, go through a presentation or give someone a call and make a conscious effort not to say “umm.” Before a meeting, tell yourself you’re going to focus on improving one aspect of your communication skills.

Donadio stresses the importance of at least practicing the opening and closing before a presentation.

“It’s going to set the stage for the presentation and you’re going to feel a lot more comfortable,” he says. “If you can start out at comfort level 10 and not comfort level 2, you’re going to be more productive.” 

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