For the Novice: Can You Hear Me Now?

For the Novice: Can You Hear Me Now?

How to make sure your communication
isn't breaking up.

By Stacey Hanke

We don’t know what we don’t know, and this is why communication can be challenging. How many of us can honestly say we’re 100 percent certain our messages are heard and that we’re consistently perceived as confident, credible and trustworthy?

As a leader you must be able to clearly communicate your organization’s strategy, vision and value. Most of us are under the blurred assumption that if we communicate a message, it’s heard. In reality, your message may not have been heard at all. Worse, it may have been unclear or misunderstood.

As a communications consultant, I’ve worked with clients ranging from Coca-Cola to the United States Army to AT&T. In 13 years of research, I’ve repeatedly found that most leaders are not trained in how to communicate effectively. Most individuals continue to climb the corporate ladder for what they know rather than how they articulate to others what they know.

Suzanne Bates, the author of Motivate Like a CEO: Communicate Your Strategic Vision and Inspire People to Act!, says it’s critical for leaders to learn the communication skills needed to be powerful motivators.

“If [leaders] aren’t communicating effectively, you have bad client relationships [and] lost business opportunities,” Bates said in an interview last year with Chief Learning Officer magazine. “There’s a real financial cost to organizations when the second- and third-tier leaders aren’t good communicators.”

How do you know if your communication is breaking up? You can assume it is when what you say isn’t consistent with how you say it. For example, someone tells you, “I’m so excited to have this opportunity to work with you” – but says it in a monotone voice with lifeless facial expressions. If, in addition, the person doesn’t look you in the eye and is fidgeting with a pen, you can safely conclude that he or she isn’t sincere. 

But You’re Breaking Up
Your communication can also break up with the words you use. Consider the word “but” and be careful of the context you use it in. Let’s say you’re in the boardroom discussing how to improve sales. A team member says, “I’m really struggling in my territory because most of my clients have cut back on their budgets.” You respond: “I understand it hasn’t been easy, but we have a business to run and you need to increase sales.” The tone is negative, resulting in people tuning out after they hear the word “but” (“I like you, but…”). Thus, they’re not as motivated.

To be assertive and direct but not negative and critical, replace “but” with the word “and,” or form two complete sentences. For example: “I understand it hasn’t been easy. We have a business to run and you need to increase sales.” Do you hear the difference in tone and meaning?

Other times, people over-qualify their statements before making their points. I have a client who used to start off his statements to his team by saying, “I’m probably way off base here…” He minimized his credibility and influence with these words. Sometimes when a team member asked him a question, he’d begin his response with, “To be honest with you…” Did this mean he wasn’t being honest with the team before? Over-qualifying your statements can undercut your authority.

Recently during my communication skills workshop, an executive opened his presentation with: “I want to ask you a question. What is the number one challenge in your role as a leader?” This executive would’ve had more influence had he opened his presentation immediately with, “What is the number one challenge in your role as a leader?”

People often inadvertently use qualifiers to fill the gap at the start of a sentence. These phrases prevent us from getting to the point, frustrate our listeners and minimize our ability to influence action. Here are some examples of those waffling phrases:

  • “I was wondering if we might consider …”
  • “This might be a stupid idea but…”
  • “To be honest with you…”
  • “I want to ask you a question.”
  • “I’d like to tell you a story.”

To communicate a message that impacts and influences people, follow these five tips:

1. Pause – Um, what perception, like, do you form, you know, of a speaker, uh, who uses words that, um, clutter their language? “Knowledgeable,” “credible” and “confident” probably don’t come to mind.

As all Toastmasters know, a key step to good communication is to replace filler words (like “um” and “you know”) with a pause. We use filler words to buy ourselves time – to think about what we want to say. But these words become distracting and your listener can misinterpret your message. Instead, give yourself permission to think on your feet by pausing. This benefits your listeners by providing them time to hear and absorb your message.

In addition, speak in shorter thoughts or sentences.

2. Eye Connection – When speaking to more than two people, connect with one individual for a complete sentence or thought. Take a moment to pause as you transition your eyes from one person to another. Only speak when you see your listener’s eyes, and pause when you look away.

3. Vocal Projection – If you want to be perceived as confident, you must speak loud enough to be heard. On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being inaudible and 10 too loud, your voice needs to be at a 7 or 8 when speaking to a group of 15 or more. When speaking over the phone or to a small group, project your voice at a 4 to 5 level.

Vocal projection has nothing to do with yelling. It’s the realization that you need to use different volume levels so your voice reaches everyone in the room. No one should have to strain to hear you.

4. Gestures – Most individuals I work with fidget with their fingers, rings, hair or pen when speaking. If they don’t fidget, then they unconsciously talk with their hands. Or they do the opposite: They hold their hands and do nothing.

Confident speakers use their gestures to add emphasis to their words. To gesture with purpose, avoid locking your elbows at your sides or creating the same repetitive gesture. Instead, expand your gestures from your sides and let your hands emphasize and describe your message. Effective gestures grab your listeners’ attention. They add energy and inflection to your voice and help you channel your nervous energy.

Add variety by relaxing your arms back to your sides after you complete a gesture. Remember not to overdo it: If you’re constantly using gestures, you’re not able to think on your feet and you’re creating static.

5. Get to the Point – How do you know if you’re going on too long or wandering off track? One way is to pay attention to the cues your listeners give you: Are they attentive or fidgeting? To get to the point, stay focused. When you find yourself starting to say too much, pause and put the brakes on!

To get back on track, keep your objective in mind. Think in terms of what your listeners needs to know, not what you want to tell them. Focus your message on, at most, the three most significant points; it will be easier for you to get to the point and for your listeners to remember your message.

Practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent, so be careful what you practice! 

Stacey Hanke is the founder of 1st Impression Consulting, Inc., and co-author of the book Yes You Can! Everything You Need From A To Z To Influence Others To Take Action. Reach her at