- Michael Thompson
Don’t just watch speeches, dissect them
Growing up with a severe speech impediment and social anxiety, I was terrified of meeting new people. That changed, however, when at the age of 23 I took a sales job to overcome this fear.
At the time I didn’t have any intention of staying in the job for long. My plan was to simply get in front of as many people as I could in the short-term to learn how to better connect with people in the future.
As I expected, for the first months on the job I got hung up on countless times each day. Then, something surprised me: I fell into a groove. Later that year, I broke into the Top 10 of a triple-digit salesforce, and shortly thereafter I was promoted to management where I went on to train all new hires.
Of course, talking to a ton of people each day played a role in this. But for every minute I spent speaking to people in public, I spent two minutes tinkering with ways to hone my communication skills in private.
Over the years, to improve my communication skills, I’ve tried every trick in the book. From both my own experience and those of my coaching clients, the 4 silent exercises below have the most potential to add weight to your spoken word.
1. Put your thoughts, feelings, and ideas down on paper
Many people believe you have to be charismatic to be a good communicator. That isn’t true. Many great communicators are shy and reserved. However, there is one trait all excellent speakers share. They are wonderful at simplifying complicated topics.
“The problem with so many of us is we underestimate the power of simplicity” — Robert Stuberg
From my experience, few exercises will expedite this process faster than taking the time to think slowly on paper.
- Start by taking a time where you didn’t communicate as well as you could have and write out what you wish you had said (I do this every time I get in an argument and since embracing this habit I don’t think it’s a coincidence the number of arguments I’ve had has decreased significantly).
- Do a quick Google search of the 20 most common interview questions in your sector and write down your answers (This simple exercise will not only help you to ace interviews. But you’ll be able to better express yourself when your daily conversations turn in your direction).
- Take an idea you have for a business and write out the most persuasive and tightest elevator pitch you can.
- Study the people in your office who send clear and concise emails and tinker with ways to mirror their messaging in a way that feels natural to you.
- Lean into your favorite stories and play with ways to make them as engaging as possible.
- Spend 10 minutes a day writing out your feelings and explore ideas of why it is you feel that way.
It becomes much easier to express ourselves when we are comfortable with the subject matter. Taking the time to first think on paper is a seriously effective way to make this happen. After all, writing is thinking.
2. Don’t just watch speeches or great storytellers, dissect them
When I signed up for my first public speaking course I was terrified to take the stage. Fortunately, for the first few classes, I didn’t have to. Instead, we were tasked with watching speeches to better understand what an effective talk looks like.
Thanks to the wide variety of speeches available online today you don’t need to take a course to learn how to do this. Simply line up a couple of TED Talks in the comfort of your own home and keep the following questions in mind:
- What were the very first words out of the speaker’s mouth (the odds are high when crafting their talk they thought about these words more than any other)?
- Did they tell a story? Drop an interesting or even controversial stat or quote? Or lead off with an intriguing question?
- What was it about their introduction that hooked you and persuaded you to keep watching? Was it because they were relatable, energetic, or they said something that simply made you curious to learn more?
Body of the talk
- How did they successfully transition from the introduction to the body of their talk?
- What words or phrases did they use as signposts to let you know they were moving on to a new point as their talk progressed?
- When breaking down complex ideas did they use metaphors, analogies, or short stories to make it easier for the audience to follow along?
- If they made a mistake, how did they recover? Did they just move on or did they make light of the situation?
- How often did they pause and why do you think they chose those times to do so?
- How did they wrap up their talk? Did they simply summarise their main points, drill home their strongest point, or did they link it back to the story they told in the introduction to bring their talk full circle?
- If they ended with a call-to-action, did it inspire you to follow their flag?
Body language and non-verbal communication
- Did they keep solid eye contact with the audience and treat each section of the room equally? If they did, how quickly did they move from face to face (three seconds is a good rule of thumb)
- How were they using their arms and hands to engage the audience (oftentimes the best speakers make a point to show the audience their palms as it’s a welcoming sign)?
- How did their body language, tone, and facial gestures change when they really wanted to make a point?
This may sound like a lot to remember, but simply being conscious of these questions is a great start as you’ll begin to pick up on all the nuances that go into giving an effective talk. Not only that, but over time you’ll better understand how to tell a more engaging story.
Quick but important aside:
In this video — my friend Conor Neill is speaking to an audience primarily consisting of non-native English speakers and is a prime example of the power of repetition and having absolute control over his voice and pace.
3. Study great interviewers
Many people who listen to podcasts only pay attention to the guests. But it’s the podcast host who can teach you more about communication.
The next time you listen to an interview, don’t get too sucked in by the interesting stories and lessons. Take note of what questions the host asks and how they keep the conversation going in a fluid way.
- Do they just jump right in with questions like “Tell me about yourself?” Or do they pad their questions with phrases like, “I read once that you……” or “I’m curious…..”
- When the person is finished answering their question, do they move on to the next one immediately? Or do they play ping-pong for a bit by sharing their own stories and asking follow-up questions in order to dig a layer deeper?
- When they really connect with something their guest said, how does their body language change and what phrases do they use to encourage them to tell them more?
- When it comes to a debate, how do they stand their ground?
I’m partial to Cal Fussman (former Esquire columnist and host of “Big Questions”), and the host of “Design Matters,” Debbie Millman. The two of them really do their homework and their interviews play as more of a conversation than Q&A and the same goes for Joe Rogan.
But when it comes to people to study, look no further than Oprah. She may have been called the “Queen of Daytime TV” but this is only because she is quite possibly the most talented conversationalist to walk this earth.
A big reason for this is because she learned early on that the key to effective communication is making sure people feel like they are being seen and their voice is being heard.
This stops and starts with our ability to listen and ask questions in a way that makes people feel validated.
4. Observe the strong communicators in your own life
All of the above tips are great ways to improve your communication skills. This final tip is my favorite, though, because you don’t need a smartphone, a computer, or someone else’s speech to learn. You don’t even need Internet access. All you need to do is pay attention to the strong communicators in your own life.
Today, when observing your own conversations and those of the people around you, keep these additional questions in mind:
- What is the body language of people when they are walking up to you? Do they make solid eye contact, nod their head, or break into a soft smile to acknowledge you?
- How do they great you to make you feel comfortable? “It’s nice to see you” “I’ve been thinking about you” or “You look great” are surprisingly effective (a good practice also is to pay attention to how people make you feel comfortable on video calls).
- When they ask questions do they jump right in or do they use softeners like, “As someone with your experience, I could use your opinion on something….” Or a simple, “I’d love to know what you think about….”
- What are their “talking to listening” ratios? When it’s your turn to talk how do they use their bodies to let you know they are paying attention? Do they lean in? Or do they even give a subtle touch when warranted to let you know you have their support?
- How do they express themselves when they are stressed out, angry, or annoyed? Do they raise their voices and speak before they think? Or do they take their time while giving other people room to express themselves?
- When they have to give bad news, do they come right out with it? Or do they share stories of their own shortcomings?
- What about navigating small talk or how they communicate when they are in a rush? Do they still bring their full presence and positive energy to these conversations? What do they say to politely excuse themselves from these quick interactions?
Each day we have countless opportunities to study the effective communicators around us. Pay attention to the words and phrases they use to make people feel comfortable. Observe how they diffuse hot situations and how they simplify complex ideas. Keep an eye on their non-verbal communication.
Most of all, take note of the times when it is clear they didn’t get things right.
After all, sometimes the best way to improve a skill is by ensuring you aren’t making the same mistakes as other people.
Pulling it all together
I can still remember the knot in my stomach the first time I walked into the sales pit for my new job. To this day I have no idea what made me stick around. But I’m glad I did. It forced me to tinker with ways to improve my communication skills and in the process, I uncovered exercises that worked for me as an individual.
The best part about the ones listed above is you don’t even need to say a word. Simply begin by collecting your thoughts and then focus on observing and listening to the people around you.
If I’ve learned anything over the last two decades as an introvert in communication-based roles, it’s that the most valuable people take the time to identify what matters most to each person they speak with.
Our words matter, but the best listeners win.