Your voice can reveal as much about your personal history as your appearance.
The sound of a voice and the content of speech can provide clues to an individual’s emotional state and a dialect can indicate their geographic roots.
The voice is unique to the person to whom it belongs.
The following three core elements of vocal production need to be understood for anyone wishing to become an effective speaker:
Volume – to be heard.
Clarity – to be understood.
Variety – to add interest.
This is not a question of treating the voice like the volume control on the TV remote. Some people have naturally soft voices and physically cannot bellow. Additionally, if the voice is raised too much, tonal quality is lost. Instead of raising the voice it should be ‘projected out’. Support the voice with lots of breath – the further you want to project the voice out, the more breath you need.
When talking to a group or meeting, it is important to never aim your talk to the front row or just to the people nearest you, but to consciously project what you have to say to those furthest away. By developing a strong voice, as opposed to a loud voice, you will be seen as someone positive.
Some people tend to speak through clenched teeth and with little movement of their lips. It is this inability to open mouths and failure to make speech sounds with precision that is the root cause of inaudibility. The sound is locked into the mouth and not let out. To have good articulation it is important to unclench the jaw, open the mouth and give full benefit to each sound you make, paying particular attention to the ends of words. This will also help your audience as a certain amount of lip-reading will be possible.
To make speech effective and interesting, certain techniques can be applied. However, it is important not to sound false or as if you are giving a performance. Whilst words convey meaning, how they are said reflects feelings and emotions. Vocal variety can be achieved by variations in:
Pace: This is the speed at which you talk. If speech is too fast then the listeners will not have time to assimilate what is being said. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to vary the pace – quickening up at times and then slowing down – this will help to maintain interest.
Volume: By raising or lowering volume occasionally, you can create emphasis. If you drop your voice to almost a whisper (as long as it is projected) for a sentence or two, it will make your audience suddenly alert, be careful not to overuse this technique.
Pitch – Inflection – Emphasis: When speaking in public, try to convey the information with as much vocal energy and enthusiasm as possible. This does not mean your voice has to swoop and dive all over the place in an uncontrolled manner. Try to make the talk interesting and remember that when you are nervous or even excited, vocal chords tense and shorten causing the voice to get higher. Emphasise certain words and phrases within the talk to convey their importance and help to add variety.
Pause: Pauses are powerful. They can be used for effect to highlight the preceding statement or to gain attention before an important message. Pauses mean silence for a few seconds. Listeners interpret meaning during pauses so have the courage to stay silent for up to five seconds – dramatic pauses like this convey authority and confidence.
What is Conversation?
A Definition of Conversation – “Intercourse, talk, familiar discourse, behaviour or deportment” – Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.
In other words, conversation is simply talking to someone else, usually informally. Keeping a conversation going is something of an art, and one which many of us now seem to lack.
But all is not lost. Not only can conversational skills be learned and developed, but it is surprisingly easy to do so, especially if you follow some simple rules.
The Rules of Conversation
- Conversation is a Two-Way Street
The first and most important rule of conversation is that it is not all about you, but it’s not all about the other person either.
A monologue, in either direction, is not conversation. Try to achieve a balance between talking and listening in any conversation.
- Be Friendly and Polite
Smiling, and being nice, will take you a long way in conversational terms. Everyone would rather chat to someone friendly and pleasant. But what are the practical elements of this?
You can build rapport by establishing some common ground and by simply smiling and using positive and reinforcing body language.
Don’t say unpleasant things about anyone. After all, the person you’re talking about could be your new acquaintance’s best friend. And even if they’re not, your new acquaintance may not relish discussion about someone behind their back (and neither should you).
Try to avoid contentious topics on first acquaintance.
It’s fine to talk politics once you know someone a bit better. When you first meet someone, though, it’s better to stick to neutral ground, which is why so many people talk about the weather. This is where ‘small talk’ comes in.
- Respond to What They are Saying
To respond genuinely to what someone has just said means that you have to listen. You can’t just switch off, and think about what you’re going to say next. However, if we’re honest, most of us would admit that we often do just that.
It’s important to focus on the other person, and what they’re saying. You also need to take into account their body language.
- Use Signalling to Help the Other Person
When a conversation is flowing well, it moves naturally from one person to the other. However, if one or both are finding it more of a struggle to ‘chat’, you may find it helpful to use ‘signals’ to show the other person that it is their turn to talk.
The most common type of signal is questions. These may be either open or closed.
Closed questions invite a yes/no answer.
In conversation, they might include “Don’t you agree?”, and “Are you enjoying the party?” They are not really inviting the other person to do more than nod and agree, rather than to share the conversation.
Open questions invite more information.
They open up the conversation to the other person, and invite them to participate. For this reason, in conversation, they are often called ‘invitations’. Open questions often start ‘How…?’ or ‘Why….?’
- Create Emotional Connections
Of course it is perfectly possible to conduct a conversation entirely at the level of small talk, with nothing important being said.
But conversation is also a way to explore whether you wish to know someone better and build a relationship with them. It can therefore be useful to understand how to use conversation to create and build emotional connections.
The key is sharing appropriate information.
That means being prepared to be open about what interests you, what makes you into you as a person, and inspiring the other person to share too.
In many interpersonal encounters, the first few minutes are extremely important as first impressions have a significant impact on the success of further communication.
Everyone has expectations and norms as to how initial meetings should proceed and people tend to behave according to these expectations. If these expectations are mismatched, communication will not be effective or run smoothly, and some form of negotiation will be needed if relations are to continue.
At a first meeting, formalities and appropriate greetings are usually expected: such formalities could include a handshake, an introduction to yourself, eye contact and discussion around a neutral subject such as the weather or your journey may be useful. A friendly disposition and smiling face are much more likely to encourage communication than a blank face, inattention or disinterested reception.
The use of encouraging words alongside non-verbal gestures such as head nods, a warm facial expression and maintaining eye contact, are more likely to reinforce openness in others.
The use of encouragement and positive reinforcement can:
Encourage others to participate in discussion (particularly in group work)
Signify interest in what other people have to say
Pave the way for development and/or maintenance of a relationship
Allay fears and give reassurance
Show warmth and openness.
Reduce shyness or nervousness in ourselves and others.
Effective questioning is an essential skill. Questioning can be used to:
Start a conversation.
Draw someone into a conversation.
Show interest in a person.
Seek support or agreement.
Closed questions tend to seek only a one or two word answer (often simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’) and, in doing so, limit the scope of the response. Two examples of closed questions are “Did you travel by car today?” and “Did you see the football game yesterday?” These types of question mean control of the communication is maintained by the questioner yet this is often not the desired outcome when trying to encourage verbal communication. Nevertheless, closed questions can be useful for focusing discussion and obtaining clear, concise answers when needed.
Open questions broaden the scope for response since they demand further discussion and elaboration. For example, “What was the traffic like this morning?” or “What do you feel you would like to gain from this discussion?” Open questions will take longer to answer, but they do give the other person far more scope for self-expression and encourage involvement in the conversation.
Reflecting and Clarifying
Reflecting is the process of feeding-back to another person your understanding of what has been said. Although reflecting is a specialised skill used within counselling, it can also be applied to a wide range of communication contexts and is a useful skill to learn.
Reflecting often involves paraphrasing the message communicated to you by the speaker in your own words, capturing the essence of the facts and feelings expressed, and communicating your understanding back to the speaker. It is a useful skill because:
You can check that you have understood the message clearly.
The speaker gets feedback as to how the message is received.
It shows interest in, and respect for, what the other person has to say.
You are demonstrating that you are considering the other person’s viewpoint.
A summary is an overview of the main points or issues raised. Summarising can also serve the same purpose as ‘reflecting’. However, summarising allows both parties to review and agree the communication exchanged between them up to that point in time. When used effectively, summaries may also serve as a guide to the next steps forward.
The way a communication is closed or ended will, at least in part, determine the way a conversation is remembered.
A range of subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, signals are used to end an interaction. For example, some people may avoid eye contact, stand up, turn their body away, or use behaviours such as looking at a watch or closing notepads or books. All of these non-verbal actions indicate to the other person that the initiator wishes to end the communication.
Closing an interaction too abruptly may not allow the other person to ’round off’ what he or she is saying so you should ensure there is time for winding-up. The closure of an interaction is a good time to make any future arrangements. Last, but not least, this time will no doubt be accompanied by a number of socially acceptable parting gestures.
Verbal Communication Skills – Sketchnote VMI