How often does this happen? You have a thought or a question that you’d like to verbalize but when you attempt to articulate it, it comes out resembling a mangled ten-car pile up. Instantly your internal voice is screeching: What the hell are you talking about?!
It happens to everyone from time to time and for some a little too often. But there should be no shame because our collective communication skills have gotten rusty. We live in a world where we’re constantly bombarded with information input which we don’t have the physical means to process. As a coping mechanism, our responses are boiled down to shorten phrases, acronyms, and emojis.
BTW FWIW IMO UR GR8 😘
While we’re just trying to keep up with the information firehose coming at us, we no longer have the luxury of time to formulate thoughtful responses. We lose the practice of deep analytical thinking which would generate crafted, well-articulated presentation of our ideas.
While being pithy in our social media communication is probably fine, if not ideal, there are times and places when having the ability to articulate complex thoughts into concise words are most beneficial. One would immediately think of the workplace where such skills are essential. You can’t abbreviate your way through a formal presentation or a job interview.
Being precise in what you want to say can be valuable too when having difficult personal conversations with a spouse/partner, a friend, or even the customer service rep. In short, articulate speech has both professional and personal application.
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Speaking well and concisely offers three immediate benefits that are evident throughout the conversation but also linger well after.
You say just what needs to be said and nothing more. Time isn’t wasted with superfluous build up or meandering tangents. I once heard the advice: when communicating, let every word tell. Buy being judicious in every word you use, you get to the point in the most direct route possible. This alone can have a big impact on how you and your message are received.
You present yourself as someone who is in command of their thoughts and ideas. You’re clear and there’s no lingering ambiguity in your position. Those that speak with you assume you hold knowledge of the topics (even if you don’t necessarily). This doesn’t mean you know everything or even pretend to. Remember there is also credibility in tactfully admitting when you don’t know something. But by how you speak, it becomes abundantly clear your domains of knowledge.
Over time and with practice you build confidence which works hand-in-hand with the credibility you’ve built. It becomes evident in small interactions like when dealing with the customer service rep and more meaningful encounters like meeting the in-laws or the CEO. Confidence begets confidence and, in time, it becomes a natural trait of your communication style.
So how do we do this? The secret lies in what happens before the conversation even takes place.
1 - Plan Your Words in Advance
When there’s something important that needs to be discussed and you have the luxury of time, formally prepare what you’d like to say. You can even go as far as writing it out (a step I never skip). Think carefully through your points. Go one step further and anticipate what you think the counter responses will be.
Keep your message simple and easy to consume. It should be simple enough for a third grader to grasp your points (which there should be no more than three). Focus on who, what, when, where, and why plus how as needed. Don’t assume other people know what you know about a topic. Start from a foundational place and let them tell you to move on if it’s redundant to their existing knowledge.
Watch for injection of jargon and acronyms especially in a mixed business setting or when talking with people of different cultures or generations. You don’t want to make people feel stupid if they can’t follow along. Unbeknownst to you, they will feign engagement but you’ll have lost them.
Buy Yourself Time to Formulate Your Points
Sometimes you don’t have time to formulate your talking points in advance especially if you have an impromptu encounter. At times like these, slow down, breathe, and give yourself some time to think instead of rambling on out of nervousness.
The deliberate pause keeps you in control and allows you to collect your thoughts. Most of your conversation partners will be caught off guard and perhaps intrigued by a long and deliberate pause. This gives you the power to change the tempo of the exchange. If you’re not prepared, try to delay. Propose revisiting the conversation at another time so you can do some homework without the pressure of feeling rushed.
2 - Formally Rehearse
Rehearse the delivery of your main points and your responses to their likely responses. And I mean speak these words out loud. Listen for how you come across. Are you conversational and confident or argumentative and tense? Say the points over and over again so they start coming out very naturally.
I always plan like this when anticipating a difficult conversation. It makes me feel more prepared, comfortable, and even confident about the pending discussion. It made a big difference the one and only time I had to fire someone and the several times I’ve had to resign from jobs.
3 - Monitor your Delivery
Speak slowly, deliberately, and audibly. Enunciate your words. Try your best not to fill in dead space with filler words — um, uh, it’s like. This is difficult for most because it’s an entrenched bad habit and it takes a lot of mindfulness and practice to eliminate.
Pause purposefully and periodically to gauge if someone is following along. Read their body language. Are they nodding in agreement or are their eyes shifting around? You can check in by saying something like Does this make sense? or What do you think of what I’ve shared so far?
Be mindful of your own body language. Does how you hold your body — posture, eye contact, hand gestures, etc. align with your desired intention and ideas? Regardless of the tone and topic of your discussion, the display of your body language can reinforce your message or expose you as untrustworthy or not credible.
4 - Use Storytelling to Add Imagery to Your Points
Paint a vivid picture to help them grasp your points experientially. This can be very powerful because it puts people right into the situation with all the thoughts and emotions that go with it. There’s a reason your heart races while watching a horror movie.
“Remember in grade school when the teachers always used to say...”
“This situation is just like what we dealt with in our last company. We had this difficult client who…”
A shortened version of this is to use analogies and metaphors that impart imagery which can be easily understood.
Having a hyperactive disobedient child is like having a Tasmanian devil for a pet.
5 - Model After Others
Sometimes it’s helpful to model your communication delivery after someone famous or in the public eye. Likely there’s ample content to review and study. You can break down the stylistic characteristics you admire and figure out how to incorporate them into your own. Despite her most recent controversy, Sheryl Sandberg's delivery in this TEDTalk was impressive to me. I now use her presentational style as an aspirational benchmark.
6 - Have a Bold Ending
Because you prepared, you should know what you want your outcome of the discussion to be. Strive to be helpful yet decisive. End your discussion with a direct appeal for action like proposing a solution or taking the next step. By being proactive like this, you keep control of the discussion and hopefully the terms of the outcome. Plus, it reinforces the credibility and authority you are attempting to convey.
It can be formulaic to some extent:
Overview of the situation or problem ➔ Options for consideration ➔ Proposal for resolution
I hear what you’re saying. May I make a suggestion?
Based on what we’ve discussed, I would propose we move forward with option A.
Given how we’re both feeling, I suggest we dial back our family obligations and instead...
Being Articulate in Front of a Group of People
Often in a work setting, you may be forced to speak in the presence of a big group. This can be unnerving. Many may elect to keep quiet out of insecurity which could be a lost opportunity. Try to manage your apprehension at times like these and actively participate. Chances are if you have added points or other questions, others do as well. By going for it, it demonstrates to the broader group your depth of thought and attention to the issues at hand.
Before speaking up, take the time to plan and prepare. Observe the larger group, the speakers, the questions being asked. If the discussion is going down a particular path see if you can make a point or ask a question that someone has not yet asked AND present an alternative perspective. Formulate your point or question, concisely speak it out, and then let it hang in the air. Chances are if you get a response of nodding heads and “That’s a good point.”, you’ve succeeded.
I know we’ve been talking about the three possible solutions to problem A but what if we used a modified version of Debbie’s solution to problem B?
Alternatively, you may be the one required to make a presentation or moderate a discussion. The same ideas still apply — plan and practice. If you feel particularly motivated to hone this skill, I recommend joining a Toastmaster group. It’s a great way to build up your technical communication and presentation skills and regularly practice with a group that’s supportive and encouraging. I belonged to a Toastmasters group for over a year and my capabilities and confidence improved markedly.
Being Articulate in Writing
The same points apply to written communication. Most people do not read extensive text unless they are invested in the content. They scan and pick out the main points. This is why being succinct is so important. If communicating via email, give special attention to the subject line. Be creative by using words that will encourage someone to open it.
Need Your Advice
New Idea for the Project
Do You Agree with this?
Words like ‘Urgent’ shouldn’t be overused, however. Whenever I need someone to read a particular email and respond I use a format like this: (But again, use sparingly)
PLS READ! Design Proposals for Review
In the body of your message, be clear and concise so your recipient can grasp your points quickly and easily. Keep paragraphs short, no more than two or three sentences. Finish all written correspondence with a definitive call to action or a statement of your position. It wraps the message up nicely and answers the question — what should I do with this information?
Please respond with one or two modifications to this proposal.
(adding quantity makes it seem less nebulous and they will probably add more)
I recommend we narrow down to these two summer camps for the kids.
I just want you to know that I love you and I appreciate everything you do.
(this should get a response : )
Articulating your ideas into thoughtful words is fundamental to effective communication. It takes preparation and practice. Lots of practice. As we’re communicating all day long there is no shortage of opportunities. If you make it a priority, you will in time cultivate a natural communication style that will, by default, organize your thoughts and articulate them well.
Consider an important future discussion you need to have. It could be a work presentation, a conversation with your spouse/partner, or a proposal to share with a colleague. Make a plan of your talking points (use an outline format). Write out your points and the recipient’s likely responses. Practice this out loud. When the conversation is over, journal about your preparation, the outcome, and lessons learned. Then keep practicing!
What other factors do you think are important when trying to articulate your ideas? Share your thoughts below in the comments.
BTW FWIW IMO UR GR8 😘 = By the way, for what it’s worth, in my opinion, you’re great!