Saturday, December 1, 2012

How to be a Consultant, Part 5: Verbal Communication Skills

This is Part 5 of a series on what it takes to be an effective computer consultant. In this post we’ll be discussing communication skills; specifically, verbal communication.

Consultants have to communicate, and while some of that will be in written form there’s no escaping verbal communication. Consultants have to interact with their teams and their clients verbally, from informal dialogue to participation in meetings to making formal presentations.

Verbal communication comes effortlessly to some while others have had a lifelong struggle with it. This happens to be a subject I know a great deal about, as I was once a terrible verbal communicator: I tend to speak rapidly and don’t project very loudly. However, I’ve worked hard at improving myself over the last 20 years, and today I am merely awful. All kidding aside, wherever you’re at you can improve measurably by working at it.

Work on Your Weaknesses and Leverage Your Strengths
Improvement begins with awareness: you can’t improve on your weaknesses if you aren’t aware of them. Ask others for feedback about your verbal communication and listen to the feedback. Record yourself, listen to yourself, and make experimental changes.

There are many things that can get in the way of an individual’s ability to communicate effectively. For speech impediments like lisping or stuttering, seek professional help. In some places you may find that others consider your accent to be a negative; if you decide you need to do something about that, look into accent reduction. If English isn’t your first language and people are having a hard time understanding you, consider further language training (note: people may be too polite or embarrassed to tell you they don’t understand you).
Most other problems such as low projection, awkward pauses, or rapid speaking can be identified and improved through repeated practice with your peers and constructive feedback. See if there is a Toastmasters club where you work, or start one yourself. You won’t find only novices at these clubs: polished orators also value feedback and continual improvement, and many like to mentor others. You can learn much by observing speakers you admire.

Poor grammar, limited vocabulary, or misuse of words are perhaps the most difficult to conquer. For a consultant, this can lead others to believe you are uneducated and will raise doubts about your expertise. Take a remedial English class, which can be taken in-person or online.
Some problems have easy solutions, such as using a microphone in front of an audience if you don’t project well. You’re a consultant, so apply your problem-solving abilities once you’ve identified your weak areas.

Don’t despair if you have issues, because you also have strengths. Once you know what they are, leveraging your verbal strengths can compensate for your weaknesses, making them less noticeable. Do people repeatedly tell you that you sound authoritative, come across as well-educated, have a pleasant voice, a darling accent, or are witty? Take note of the areas you are in command of and use them strategically—but don’t overdo it.
Take a lesson from the music industry: plenty of people with bad voices have nevertheless become successful and popular singers. Some have even convinced their fans that their “unusual” voices are simply their unique style. You too can overcome.

Know What Knobs You Can Turn
You may be thinking “the way I speak is the way I speak”, but the way you speak is not fixed: despite the kind of speaking you normally fall into, there are a variety of things under your control that you can modify if you learn how to. They include these areas:

• How you breathe (ideally, longer controlled breaths from the diaphragm)
• Your volume (speaking too loudly is as bad as too softly)

• Pitch of your voice (modulate it for emphasis)
• Pace (going too fast loses people, going too slow cause a loss of interest)

• Articulation (avoid mumbling)
• Posture (stand up straight, but be relaxed)

Listen to people who speak on the radio, such as those reading the news or hosting a talk show. These people are not speaking the way they do in ordinarily life: they have been trained to pay attention to their enunciation when on the air. You can too.
Speak the Audience’s Language

As we mentioned last time around with written communication, you should speak in the language of your audience. If you’re in front of a well-educated crowd, expand your vocabulary a bit—but don’t sound snooty and use overly-erudite words. Use more technical language for a technical audience, and business language for a business audience.
Speaking your audience’s language can be tough if you don’t know their world very well; the last thing you want to do is use terms like CapEx and OpEx in front of a group of CFOs if you don’t understand precisely what they mean. In my experience it’s much better to admit what you don’t know (“I’m not a subject matter expert in this area, but we have experts in our company”) than to pretend you know more than you: it’s only a matter of time before pretenders get busted.

Using the Right Words and Pronunciation
You can lose your credibility very quickly if you use the wrong word or phrase in place of another, use a non-existent word, or can’t pronounce a word correctly when everyone else you’re talking to can.

It’s easy to use the wrong word, and many people have fallen into this without realizing it. Don’t confuse…
bought (purchased) with brought (past tense of bring)

mute (unable to make sound) with moot (of no practical value).
literally (non-exaggerated) with practically or virtually (almost, nearly).

primer (guide or book) is pronounced "primmer", not "prime-er" (which is paint).

nucular (no, it's nuclear and I don't care what state you live in). I don't think I need to explain this one. Regional pronunciations are fine, but coming across as illiterate is something else altogether.

Having said that, also realize that sometimes wrong usage is so pervasive it has become the accepted norm: today most people use the word decimate to suggest total annihilation, but the original meaning of the word was “to reduce by one-tenth”.
Don’t use words or phrases that don’t exist:

irregardless is not a word. You meant regardless (without regard).
for all intensive purposes is a misunderstanding of for all intents and purposes.

I could care less means you do care. You meant to say I could not care less (perhaps it’s best to avoid this phrase completely).

Above all, don’t use a word if you’re unsure of its meaning or pronunciation. I’ve found many people have at least one or two words they understand in the wrong way, so pay attention when you find someone using a word differently than you do—and find out which way is correct. it's unfortunate to realize you're making errors like these later in life, where it's been hurting you in the eyes of others for years.

Using words wrongly when you speak can be the kiss of death: a sufficiently bad or repeated offense may cause your audience to dismiss you and tune you out. 

Avoid Annoying and Unnecessary Phrases
Leave out these words and phrases—all they do is annoy people:

Can I ask you a question?  You just did…
Obviously or Clearly: never assume your audience knows and thinks just like you, so don't begin sentences with these kinds of words. Many people fall into a bad habit of beginning every other sentence with one of these words. Obviously this is extremely annoying to the audience.

ATM Machine. The M stands for machine, why are you saying it again? Likewise LCD Display, PIN number, LAN network, ISBN Number, RAID Array and AC Current are instances of RAS syndrome. Don’t be a member of the Department of Redundancy Department.
Fairly unique. Unique means having no equal. Something is either unique or it isn’t. You can’t be fairly unique any more than you can be fairly pregnant.

• Mysterious acronyms. Define acronyms the first time you use them. Not everyone in your audience may know what the acronym means, and in some cases it could stand for one of several things. Does "ATM" mean Automated Teller Machine or Asynchronous Transfer Mode?

Confidence, Friendliness, and Grace
Talk with confidence, friendliness, and grace or don’t talk at all. Failure to do so will speak volumes more than your actual words.

Confidence and authority must be in the consultant’s voice. Even in a “I don’t know” situation, you must exude confidence: “…but someone in our organization does. We’ll get them involved.” Don’t give the audience reason to doubt you: they can smell fear.

Friendliness and warmth comes through in your communication, as does hostility or neutrality. You can express friendliness by smiling, in your tone of voice, in your phrasing, and most of all by being sincere. Don’t underestimate the importance of coming across as warm rather than cold (evidence).
Don’t be crude or insensitive. You’re sure to offend at least one person and that could tip the outcome against you. It’s a risk there’s no reason to take. Avoid off-color comments or humor, political statements, or assumptions about what your audience’s values are. You’ll often be wrong, and sorry.

Don’t cut other people off. It’s disrespectful to them to not let them finish and give a moment for digestion before chiming in with your own comments. Admittedly it can be hard when you’re competing against others to get a word in. This is one of my own weak areas, and I always feel extremely foolish when I forget to control it.

The most respectful thing you can do when responding to someone is to make it clear you listened to what they just said. You can do this by echoing back the essence of their comment before offering your own.
When you speak, you want people to listen to you. You in turn need to listen when others are speaking. When two or more people are talking past each other it’s not conversation, it’s noise.

Dynamic Adjustment based on Audience Feedback
While you’re speaking, someone in the audience may sharply disagree with you on a point or the meaning of a term. If it’s a major disagreement with your content that’s one thing, but sometimes the area of complaint will be something you can adjust for. If you can graciously acknowledge a complaint and adjust what you’re saying to stop annoying that person—while still communicating what you intended—that’s the best way to move forward and not get derailed. At the same time, don’t let the audience change your message on you. Here are some examples:

• Person in audience: I don’t agree that is a benefit.
   You: It’s true not everyone sees this in the same way, but many of our clients identified this as a benefit.
• Person in audience: What you’re calling Capital Expenditures really isn’t.
   You: Sorry, I’m not an Accounting expert. What I mean is, you’re avoiding up-front server costs in favor of a pay-as-you go model.

• Person in audience: How do you back up that claim? I’ve never heard XYZ say that.
   You: That’s just my observation, but I can offer up several things that led me to that conclusion. I didn’t mean to suggest that any announcement had been made by XYZ.
• Person in audience: You lost me, I’m not following all these terms like “mediation” and “transformation”.
   You: All we’re saying is, you have all these great systems and we’re getting them to work together—but they don’t all speak the same “language”. We have several different techniques for getting them to understand each other.

Should You Avoid Verbal Communication if You’re Weak at it?

Is it a good idea to avoid verbal communication if you’re poor at it? There’s definitely a right answer to this question: it’s yes or no, depending on the importance of the communication.
NO, you should not shirk away from verbal communication. If anything, you should be seeking out as many venues as possible to practice and perfect. As we said at the beginning of this post, verbal communication is inescapable for a consultant. So work at it, just as you would any skill such as mastering a new technology. Having said that…

YES, you should under no circumstances put your weakest person on point for a critical presentation where there’s a lot riding on it. You wouldn’t put a new student driver on the freeway, would you? It would be bad for the student and even worse for those they are interacting with. If you’re in a team setting, choose the best presenter for a win. If the speaker is not the person who prepared the content, you’ll need to be sure they are in command of the material and can speak authoritatively and convincingly.
For a speaker who’s making progress and is ready to almost go solo, consider tag-team presenting where they are paired up with a strong speaker and hand off to each other in a smooth rhythm.

Non-Verbal Communication
Don’t forget that spoken communication is accompanied by the visual cues you give. If you’re in the same room with the people you’re speaking to, there’s more to communication than what comes out of your mouth:

• Facial Expression. Your face is a key indicator of your emotions. Remember to smile.
• Body Language. You want your posture, your movements, and your gestures to back up the warm, confident, trustworthy feelings you are seeking to convey.

• Eye Contact. Be sure to make eye contact with your audience. If you can’t do that all at once, take turns looking at one part of the room and then another. You want your audience to know you are speaking to them.
• Appearance. Like it or not, people often judge a book by its cover. How you dress and style yourself will make an impression before you even open your mouth.

In Conclusion
The spoken word: it’s tough for many of us, but it’s undeniably part of a consultant’s world. Much about you (and your company) will be inferred from your verbal communication, so take it seriously. If you’re one of those who have been struggling with effective speech, these tips should help. More than anything, practice speaking, solicit feedback, and improve on a continuing basis. If you don’t give up on yourself, I promise there will be breakthrough moments when you realize you are passing milestones on the way to verbal eloquence: and it’s a great and empowering feeling.

Next: Part 6: Effective Presentation Content

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Well, the instruction and tips are great, it have versatility. It also helpful for all in common conversation.
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