• Seven Steps to Improving Verbal Communication Skills

    Jason J. Davidson Feb 20, 2014

    Delivering a compelling presentation sometimes means ditching copious notes and a lengthy PowerPoint® presentation and simply trusting your mastery of the subject matter.


    A clinical executive who recently moved into a role requiring greater responsibilities and more communication learned what many executives find as they move up the organizational ladder: The keys to effective verbal communication are much the same whether presenting to a crowd of 100 as during intensive one-on-one interactions, such as performance reviews, difficult conversations with employees, and interviews with potential new hires. 

    In addition to managing a larger team of direct reports, the clinical executive was asked to increase her visibility in the community by making presentations to local groups about service line improvements at her health system. By employing seven tactics, she was able to improve her communication skills on all fronts. 

    Improving Communication Skills

    In the past, the clinical executive had experienced memory lapses during presentations and was concerned about the power and impact of her delivery. This leader focused on the following steps to build confidence in her delivery and gain buy-in from the audience. 

    Perform a comprehensive assessment of current strengths and weaknesses. Speakers often don't know how to effectively leverage the strengths they already possess. In this instance, the clinical executive possessed a warm and authentic interpersonal style, but she wasn't effectively using that strength when communicating with audiences. This was a natural strength she could easily use to develop a real connection during a talk. She needed to recognize that audiences weren't looking for a sterile or stiff presenter, but rather a genuine speaker with refined delivery.

    Manage speaking anxieties effectively. Tackling this challenge often begins with a speaker acknowledging the presence of anxieties. Most of us are nervous before a presentation, whether the audience is three people or 300. Concrete strategies for effectively overcoming discomfort include discussing anxieties with a trusted colleague, practicing breathing exercises, and visualizing successful outcomes. 

    For example, this positive affirmations exercise has a calming effect. First, the speaker calls out three sources of anxiety about the upcoming presentation, such as memory lapses or stuttering. Next, the speaker writes statements that express confidence in overcoming these difficulties. Finally, the speaker should periodically review these written statements before the presentation. 

    Use notes effectively. No single strategy is effective for everyone. For example, this particular executive had a history of bringing copious notes to the podium. Many of her memory lapses were attributable to her focus on covering everything outlined in her notes. For her, simplification was the key. We distilled her notes down to simple bullet points that she was able to use as a roadmap during her talk. She was an expert in her material and needed to learn to trust that she had mastery over her talking points.

    Balance use of PowerPoint slides during talks. This step was critical to the executive's success. Visual aids are frequently used as a presentation crutch rather than a complement. This executive cut the number of slides in half so that she could focus more on her delivery and less on simply walking an audience through a slide deck. Truly effective speeches start with the speaker, not the slides. 

    Structure content with a clear audience impact in mind. Most audience members digest about 30 percent of the material presented to them. With this in mind, the executive focused on the key points of her presentation and the reaction she was seeking from the audience. Good talks aren't about information transfer; that can be accomplished in an email. Rather, they are about identifying and successfully eliciting a specific response from the audience. 

    Strengthen delivery mechanics: volume, vocal variety, pacing, and gestures. Because we traditionally focus heavily on the content (the "what") during talks, it's easy to forget that the actual sound and look of our delivery (the "how") is the driving force of audience perception. 

    The old saying that "practice makes perfect" couldn't be truer in this situation. In this example, the executive rehearsed until various skills were second nature for her. For example, she practiced how to vary the tone and volume of her voice while speaking, how to gesture with purpose while not distracting the audience with unnecessary movement, and how to use moments of silence to emphasize an important point.

    Improve audience affinity through the use of personal anecdotes, appropriate humor, and rhetorical devices. By incorporating an interesting personal story into her presentation, the executive was able to easily connect with the audience. We all like to hear stories. We can often relate to them, and the fact is, they're more interesting than recitations of data. She effectively "humanized" herself to the audience and this, as is usually the case, had a lasting impact.

    Connecting with Audiences—Big or Small

    After a few weeks of focusing on these key skills, the leader demonstrated a heightened awareness of her audience's needs and matched her talks accordingly. Audiences were responding enthusiastically, her delivery was more fluid and natural, and responses were more aligned with the purpose of the talks.

    In continuing her focus on verbal communication, the leader realized that her ability to interact effectively with her direct reports and peers also showed improvement. Because her personal presence had improved, these were skills she was able to leverage during a wide range of small group and one-on-one interactions. 

    Jason J. Davidson, founding principal of PicketFenceConsulting, Orange County, Calif.



    Steps for Preparation One Week Before You Speak

    Seven days before your talk:

    • Organize your notes and make sure they are ready for your presentation date.
    • Review your content to ensure you are including at least one personal anecdote or story.
    • Deliver your entire talk to two trusted colleagues and ask for specific feedback, including the strengths and opportunities in both your content and delivery.

    Three days before your talk:

    • Deliver your entire talk in front of a full-length mirror, paying close attention to whether your facial expressions and body mechanics are aligned with the message of your presentation.
    • Perform a final review of any slide decks and visual aids, keeping in mind that less is more and that aids should complement your presentation, not drive it.

    The night before your talk:

    • Perform a final run-through with someone in your personal life, keeping in mind that regardless of how specific the content, your delivery should resonate with someone outside of the intended audience.
    • Acknowledge any last-minute anxieties and address them head-on.
    • Relax and feel confident. You're going to do a great job.

    Source: PicketFenceConsulting, Orange County, Calif. Used with permission.