Thinking about how you come across to others? Want to make some improvements? Well, you’re certainly in good company. All sorts of people, from politicians to salespeople to little-league softball coaches must present themselves with a reasonable amount of confidence if they expect to be believed and trusted.
And luckily, there are specific steps we can all take to come across more powerfully and professionally — with immediate and lasting benefits.
1. Learn from your role models.
This first one might feel sort of passive, as if you’re not really doing anything, but stay with me on this. Just sit back, relax, and think about the people who surround you. Go ahead and call to mind anyone you wish — your co-workers, bosses, teachers, friends, your mom, or the next-door neighbors. Next, think about how these people communicate. Who sounds strong and knowledgeable? Who, not so much? What are these people doing (or not doing) with their voices, body language, facial expressions, sentence structure, or verbal content that makes them good (or not so good) at putting their points across?
The people in your life are immediately accessible learning resources, so observe, analyze, and replicate what works. You did exactly that when you were a child, and it’s how you learned to walk, talk, express your emotions, articulate your dislike of creamed spinach, declare your love for your first preschool sweetheart, negotiate for a later bedtime, and practically everything that followed — clear through to your present-day adult behaviors. We humans, like many mammals, are creatures who can learn by observation — a very adaptive biological shortcut that allows us not to have to figure out every last little life-detail on our own — we learn more quickly and make far fewer mistakes that way. So take a good look-see around you, and you’re sure to find a few excellent communication teachers living right in your midst. You already know some great role models — walking, talking examples of what works and what doesn’t — so use them!
2. Don’t shriek.
Simply put, the highest range of your vocal tone can be off-putting — and downright irritating. Many of us (women a bit more than men) use something called a “widely varying intonational pitch pattern,” which makes use of four distinct pitch ranges, from low to high. You use the highest-most pitch range to express delight, surprise, or excitement, as in, “Wow! I didn’t know you were going to beeee here today!” You might also use it to talk to babies, small children, and cute pets.
However, no one, neither male nor female, uses it indiscriminately. You won’t hear anyone walk into a dry cleaners and shriek, “Helloooo! Is my cleeeaning ready?” In other words, the highest pitch range is “sociological code” for expressing extraordinary enthusiasm among humans, and it’s not characteristically used for common everyday interaction.
But most importantly, this highest pitch range, while appropriate at children’s birthday parties and dog parks, is the one that undermines your power and credibility. When you “go high,” you sound emotional, tense, and out of control. So if you want to be taken seriously and be seen as a capable communicator, you’ll need to jettison this high-pitched voice, and stick to the lower registers — especially when making presentations, delivering information, or giving instructions.
3. Eliminate “fillers.”
Also sometimes called “verbal crutches,” they’re the sounds or words you use when you’re considering what to say, such as “umm,” “uhh,” “ya know,” and “okaaay.” Everyone needs to stop and think every now and then, but resist the urge to “fill the air” while you’re pondering. You’ll sound far more powerful if you simply allow yourself to be silent for a quick moment, think of what you want to say, and then continue speaking.
So how do you work to eliminate your fillers? Two ways. The first one is to record yourself during a normal conversation and then play it back. Be prepared — you may use more fillers than you think! Once you become aware of your own personal “favorites,” it’s much easier to make a change, because you’ll be better able to hear yourself when you use them.
The second way is to enlist the assistance of a trusted friend or colleague. Ask them to listen to you, and to silently point out — without interrupting your speech — when you’re using a filler. So how do they silently tell you? By raising their eyebrows, wiggling their noses, sticking out their tongues, or any other motion that gets your attention without actually stopping you. Again, by using this method, you’ll start to become aware of your fillers, and you’ll be better able to eliminate them. (And for you science geeks out there, this method is what’s technically called “building a visual/auditory brain connection.”
4. Speak in paragraphs.
In other words, break your entire message into smaller segments, and then deliver the “bite-sized” portions, one at a time, pausing between the “thought elements,” allowing others to absorb what you’re saying (and to possibly respond), and then continuing. It’s very exhausting for your listeners to hear one run-on thought after another, delivered without a break, and in random order. Plus, it makes you sound muddled and unprepared. Do your listeners a favor and organize your thoughts before you speak — you’ll sound far more powerful and in control, and they’ll appreciate you for your efforts.
Obviously, when you’re chatting with your buds over a beer after work, breaking your message into paragraphs isn’t really that essential — although I bet they would still be grateful if you didn’t run on forever about your brother’s new car or your roommate’s lame playlist. It’s when you have to deliver an important, complicated, or difficult message that you want to pay attention to your form. It’s actually the speaker’s job — and not the listener’s — to make sure your message is clearly understood, so do what you would do if you were writing a report: organize your thoughts, put them in logical order, and then deliver them accordingly.
5. Maintain assertive eye contact.
If you want to come across as a professional, persuasive communicator, it’s absolutely necessary to look other people directly in the eyes while you’re interacting with them. There are actually two times when direct eye contact is essential: when you’re giving instructions, and when you’re sharing information. But even in general, in order for other people to feel as if you’re really connecting with them, you must make eye contact. By doing so, you’re showing that you’re engaged in the conversation, you’re interested in what the other person is saying, you’re confident about your skills and abilities, and you’re an open, friendly person — all positive characteristics that will move the interaction forward.
And now that I’ve mentioned the word “friendly,” it’s also important to break eye contact just a tiny bit as you’re talking to someone, or you’ll look intimidating and aggressive. So ideal, assertive eye contact involves looking directly at others (mostly) and breaking eye contact (just a little).
6. Display powerful posture.
Your posture counts for a lot. Studies show that people with good posture are seen as more successful, more intelligent, harder working, and more reliable — all desirable traits if you want to come across more assertively. Relax your arms and hands on your lap or chair arm (or at your sides, while standing), bring your shoulders back, and place your feet slightly apart when standing, or directly on the floor when sitting. With your arms at your sides, rather than in your pockets or folded over your chest, you look open and non-judgmental, ready to interact with others wholeheartedly.
And no matter what, avoid playing with your cuticles, jingling the keys in your pocket, or any other form of fidgeting. (Confident, persuasive people never appear jittery or squirmy!) Putting your shoulders back signals that you’re comfortable with yourself, able to “own your own space,” self-assured, and unafraid. Standing with your feet slightly apart (but no exaggerated “block and tackle” stance, or you’ll look menacing) makes you look stable and competent. And placing your feet directly on the floor when sitting signals that you’re calm, composed, and imperturbable. (This position will also keep you from kicking your crossed leg up and down, which can make you look anxious or timid.)
Simple steps, right? But don’t underestimate their value. Just practice these six basic tips and you’ll instantly improve your ability come across like you know what you’re talking about!
Denise Dudley, author of the book “Work It!: Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted” is a professional trainer and keynote speaker, author, business consultant, and founder and former CEO of SkillPath Seminars, the largest public training company in the world. Denise speaks all over the world on a variety of topics, including body language, management and supervision skills, leadership, assertiveness, time management, stress management, communication, business writing and personal relationships.