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The Art of Effective Communication

Vocal Tones and Nonverbals

Professor Brian Zikmund-Fisher discusses the communication techniques that don't involve words as part of the Foundational Skills for Communicating About Health MOOC.

Excerpt From


So now let's talk about talking, the things that we do with our voice and our bodies when we're speaking. So, much of what people learn from listening or watching us when we're communicating or presenting is not actually in the words that we say, it's in our bodies and in our voices. So let's go through some verbal and nonverbal factors that matter when we're presenting, things like the use of verbal graffiti or check words, and I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute, changes in verbal tone or pitch or our use of pauses or if sometimes our lack of use of pauses in the way in which we're talking. As a presenter, we also need to think about emotion and our hands and our bodies, what are we doing physically, including our eye contact as ways of communicating with our audience. So I'm going to try and go through each of these, in turn, give you just a little bit of information to think about when you're trying to improve the way in which you present to others and that presentation could be in a formal video or in a classroom or in a large conference presentation but it's the same principles everyplace. So verbal graffiti. I think clearly when you're talking, well you want to make sure that you don't actually stick in extra words, and I mean, it would be annoying, right? So are you annoyed? You saw what I did there? I just kept putting in these extra words, they didn't actually say anything. If you keep adding unnecessary verbal graffiti, you just make your audience frustrated and angry. When we're talking with an audience, we need to know what we want to say and when you're confident, you don't feel the need for those fillers, those extra verbal graffiti words, you just use the words that you want to say in that moment. Now, a variant of the verbal graffiti problem is what we call ending check words. These might be, it's an important to avoid adding any unnecessary words, right? You just need to drop them from your speech, okay? This is a good idea, see? You get the point, right? Those extra words at the end, not helpful. Now, from a vocal tone standpoint, a key when you're presenting is to project your voice and when I say project, I don't mean yell. I mean project like use your diaphragm, use your voice as if you were speaking to somebody say across the room. If you don't do that, if you just talk a little quietly like somebody is right close to you, it's not clear enough. You want to project your voice and even now when I'm talking to a camera, you could tell when I was projecting my voice versus when I wasn't. Another thing to think about in terms of vocal tone is to avoid ending with a question pitch. What do I mean by that? Well, when we say questions, we usually end with a higher tone at the end. So are you going to go there? What are you going to do next? See how I ended? If you keep that, the question tone going up at the end it makes you seem less confident. But when I'm talking normally, when I'm talking to make a point, I'm always bringing a slightly lower tone and at the end of my questions, I mean at the end of my statements and it's that lower tone that conveys confidence. Notice as I'm talking here I'm varying my tone, sometimes I'm higher, sometimes I'm lower. That variance helps you pay attention to me as I'm talking. I'm also trying to use a deliberate pace, not too fast, not too slow, and intentional pauses. These last two ideas are really important. When we get nervous, we all tend to go a little too fast. So one thing you should pay attention to is when you're nervous, go just a little bit slower than you think you should. It won't actually be too slow, it'll probably be just about right. Another thing that happens when we get nervous is that we tend as we're going too fast to not talk clearly. So you need to enunciate or say each syllable clearly more than you think you should and that compensation will help you be clearer when you're presenting. Now, pauses. I can't emphasize enough the value of pauses. Pauses are your best cue to your audience. It's the way using your vocal tool to tell the audience where do you want to give the audience time to think. A pause shows importance. A pause helps the audience know, I should think about this a little more. I should remember that. Now, emotion is also important. You want to smile, you want to show your personal interest, right? If I'm smiling and I'm showing in my face and in my tone that I really care about this, then you're going to respond to that, you're going to be more interested. So I always think you want to say what you mean and then use your body to mean what you say. Being professional is not being emotionally flat. Even if you're reading the words off, if you're just being emotionally flat, why do you want to listen to this? That's boring and it's worse than that. It's untrustworthy. It doesn't feel natural. What you want to be when you're presenting or even just when you're talking one-on-one with somebody is a human expert. You can have both. You can be the expert on whatever it is you're talking about and to be human and that humanity will help you connect with your audience better. Now, hands, two key points. When you're presenting and you're standing, you want your hands at your sides. No T-Rex hands and Timothy Koegel talks about being like a dinosaur, palming your hands up closed next to your neck. You also want to move with intent and purpose. If you're going to move, you want to move with broad gestures or to count or use comparison gestures. So let me give you some examples, right. The T-Rex hands, up here, that doesn't work. If you're fidgeting with your hands, it just looks wrong. If you want to move, use broad gestures like you should do this, or you know the data show that cases have been increasing over time. Increasing, that gesture reinforces the idea that it's going up. It's also great to count, right? So I can say the first important point, and second, and third, and again my hands are reinforcing the core message. Hands are also great to use for comparisons, this versus that, or there have been more cases over here and fewer over here. Things like that again are reinforcing the core messages. Now, eye contact. I'm looking at the camera here because I'm doing a video, but when you're in a room with people, you always want to make sure that you have your head up as much as possible. Don't be looking down, looking at some notes or something like that. You need to make sure that you're using your eye contact to reach your audience and not scanning vaguely. What you want to do is you want to look at individual people. In fact, make eye contact. Hold eye contact for 2-4 seconds to make a connection with that person. Other people will see you doing that and it actually makes them feel like you're speaking to them as a group. When you're just vaguely talking, it's like you're talking at them as opposed to talking with them. Another point when you have a big room is look at people in all parts of the room. If you need to move your shoulders and body and talk over here or talk over here. When you do that, you're showing with your body that you want to connect with everybody. Lastly, there is no substitute for practice. You just have to do this stuff and I'm serious about this. If you're nervous about presenting or if you want to get better at it, the best thing you can do is to raise your awareness of what do you do, what are your particular habits, and in particular, what do you do when you're nervous. Me, what I tend to do is I tend to go a bit too fast. I get my pace going too fast, my arm's moving too much, and I fidget with my hands, and because I've seen myself do that, I'm aware of it and I can work to offset those tendencies. When practicing a speech or any oral presentation, you have to do it and you have to do it out loud. I practiced this lecture earlier today out loud. I stood in my office, talked it out. It really is not the same as skimming through slides, you actually have to do the practice. So the best practice you can do is to record yourself and watch yourself, and yes, I know it can be awkward, it might make you feel embarrassed, but I swear there is no better way to learn your patterns and to change them. So therefore, just do it. Watch yourself, think about what you're doing, and try to decide what it is you want to change to get better.