The Art of Verbal Communication

“I took myself down to the Tally Ho Tavern,
To buy me a bottle of beer.
I sat me down by a tender young maiden,
Who’s eyes were as dark as her hair.
And as I was searching from bottle to bottle,
For something un-foolish to say.
That silver tongued devil just slipped from the shadows,
And smilingly stole her away.

  *lyrics from Silver Tongued Devil by Kris Kristofferson

Many of us wish we could be that “silver tongued devil” – someone skilled at getting what they want through the power of words–an expert in The Art of Verbal Communication. Verbal communication is an essential project management skill. Whether it is instructing team members, chatting in the break area, interviewing users, persuading clients, or presenting to management, I find these skills come into play almost every day of my working life. (And of course in my personal life!)

How you say it matters
Two people saying exactly the same thing can deliver two very different messages depending on how they express the message. Take tone, for example. A quiet tone with little variation in pitch or volume tends to be calming. If the quiet tone goes on too long though, it may become a narcotic putting the audience to sleep or encouraging them to look around for other action.

Your tone reflects your attitude and influences interpretation of your communication. Upbeat, positive tones increase agreement and comfort. It is okay to sound a little excited about a good idea or a new product. However, sarcastic, condescending, or monotone inflections are downers that discourage people and drive them away from your message.

Eye contact and smiling are powerful adjuncts to how you say something. Verbal communication, accompanied by looking at the audience or into the other person’s eyes and smiling, unconsciously moves the communication outcome in the direction of agreement.
And don’t forget that body language matters in verbal communication. Arm position, hand movements, smooth or jerky actions all integrate to create one verbal communication event. Now body language is a big subject that deserves its own post. However, for a good introduction to body language and its role in the art of verbal communication, check out “Understanding body language” from Changing Minds and “Body Language – Understanding non-verbal communication” from MindTools.

Verbal communication beyond “social chitchat” benefits from repetition. NO – Not saying the exact same thing several times, but communicating the same message in different ways. In his book, What the Dog Saw (2009), Malcolm Gladwell talks about why some pitchmen are successful in selling ideas and products, “You have to explain to customers – not once or twice but three or four times with a different twist each time. You have to show them how it works and why it works… and how it fits into their routine.”

For project managers communicating with clients, stakeholders or potential customers, this means you follow the words of Dale Carnegie, “tell what you are going to say, tell them, then tell them that you’ve said.”

Get feedback
A unique virtue of oral verbal communication is the ability to get instant feedback from your audience. You should use the verbal and nonverbal feedback to shape or redirect your verbal communication. If people are looking directly at you, nodding their heads, and making agreeable noises, your presentation is having the desired effect. On the other hand, if the person or audience is looking away, texting on their Blackberries, or folding their arms over their chests and looking like they want to bite something, it is time to change verbal tactics. (You think?)

The most important thing you can do to improve the effectiveness of your verbal communication is to ask for feedback. This sounds real easy, but it isn’t and most people don’t do it. Ask in a way that shows you really want to know and paraphrase or restate comments or questions to make sure you are focusing on what the audience wants and needs from you.

Deal with filters
Based on previous life experiences, beliefs and values, people develop filters through which they interpret what they see and hear. Perception is reality. Project managers must keep this fact in mind when choosing words to speak and listening to words spoken. You may not understand or even need to know why your message is not being received as intended. However, it is essential that you know when there is a disconnect from what you expect – and take action to ameliorate it.

Follow the simple suggestions above:

  • Make your tone of voice upbeat and positive
  • Say the same thing in different ways,
  • Pay attention to your body language and your target audience
  • Choose words carefully and do not use words that are loaded with extra meaning
  • And, most importantly, GET FEEDBACK!

If you have other tips on communication please share your thoughts with other project managers via comments. Thanks!

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