5 common communication mistakes (and how to fix them)

22.05.2019 21:59

Originally published in Stanford Business 

Too often we make the same speaking mistakes. Break those bad habits with these tips.

We have all unnecessarily suffered through disengaging, ineffective presentations and meetings. But most of us make the same mistakes, again and again. By applying these straightforward fixes, we can make our communication experiences more effective and productive. Below are five fixes for more effective communication.

The most precious commodity in today’s world is not gold or cryptocurrency, but attention. We are inundated with a tremendous amount of information vying for our focus. Why then would so many people squander away an opportunity to gain attention by starting presentations or meetings with: “Hi, my name is . . . and today I am going to talk about . . . ” This is a lackluster, banal, disengaging way to begin. Not only does it lack originality, it is downright silly since most speakers start this way while standing in front of a slide displaying their name along with the title of their talk.

Rather than commence with a boring and routine start, kick off your presentation like a James Bond movie–with action: You can tell a story, take a poll, ask a provocative question, show a video clip. Starting in this manner captures your audience’s focus and pulls them away from other attention-grabbing ideas, people, or devices. This action-oriented approach works for meetings, too. On your agenda, have the first item be one or two questions to be answered when you start. In this way, participants get engaged from the moment the meeting begins.

Research in psychology teaches us that we tend to remember best what we hear first and last rather than what comes in the middle–aka primacy and recency effects. You would expect then that speakers would dedicate more time to how they conclude their talks and meetings. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t happen. The most common concluding lines I hear go something like, “I guess we’re out of time and someone needs our conference room.” This type of ending is a missed opportunity! Take time to plan out and practice how your presentation and meeting will end. Be concise and clear because you don’t have a lot of time. Once you signal you are wrapping up (e.g., “In conclusion”), your audience disengages and begins to focus on what comes next.

A great way to end is to first express gratitude: “Thank you for your time,” or, “I appreciate your attention to this.” And next, simply speak out your communication goal, which should be a concise statement of what you want your audience to know, feel, and do as a result of your content.

In college, I was trained for a full academic quarter to be a tour guide of my campus. During my very regimented training, they impressed upon me that above all else good tour guides never lose their tour groups. The very same standard exists for presenters and meeting facilitators. Never lose your audience because if you do, they will likely go to their phones or their friends or to sleep. The weakest link of any tour or presentation comes when moving from one place/portion to the next. It is in transition that your audience is most likely to get lost, distracted, or confused. Thus, you must spend time planning and practicing robust transitions that go beyond “next” and “so.”

In any typical business communication, there are several potential transition points that must be bridged successfully:

Moving between points in your talk or meeting
Entering and exiting slides
Going from presentation into Q&A
Switching from one presenter to another

A successful transition includes a concrete wrap-up or takeaway of the immediately prior topic/slide/person and then bridges to the next topic/slide/person. These transitions can be statements (e.g., “With a clear understanding of the current problem, we can now address one way to solve it”) or questions (e.g., “With a problem as substantial as this, how can we best solve it?”).

Too many leaders today negatively impact their credibility through their word choice, such as, “I think we should kind of sort of enter this new market.” Hedges are these phrases that litter much of our communication. Repeated use of hedging language reduces perceptions of your competence because it softens your assertiveness, reduces your clarity, and makes you seem wishy-washy and unsure of what you are saying.

The best way to address hedging is via substitution. Find stronger, more powerful words to replace these less assertive ones. For example, “I think” becomes “I believe” or “I know.” “Kind of” and “sort of” can be replaced with “one way.” Finding more assertive substitutions affords you a way to make your point more clearly and definitively. However, before you can substitute, you must first become aware of your hedging language. Thankfully, apps such as Orai, LikeSo, Ummo, Ambit, and VoiceVibes can provide useful, personalized feedback on your language use, along with pacing, pauses, variation, and tone.

We all fear standing in front of a group in the middle of a high-stakes presentation and forgetting what to say next. Many people try to address this ubiquitous fear by memorizing their content. Unfortunately, memorizing often increases the likelihood of blanking out. How do you escape this fate? Simply put: Avoid memorizing.

Here’s why: If you commit your script to memory, you create the “right” way to speak your content. This approach only increases the pressure you feel because you want to say things exactly the way you previously memorized. This pressure increases the likelihood that you will make a mistake due to the increase in cognitive load. Further, this added mental demand reduces the bandwidth you have to adjust and adapt to your audience. Thus, speaking to your audience “through” your script causes you to be less connected and engaging.

But if you aren’t supposed to memorize your presentation, how can you be sure your content won’t be forgotten or come out as a rambling, unorganized mess? The key to not blanking out and remaining connected and engaging is to create a comprehensive outline that is based on a clearly structured presentation. A structure provides a map for both you and your audience. With a map in hand, it’s hard to get lost. First, take the time to thoughtfully apply an audience-centric structure. Second, document it in an outline format. At least three types of outlines can help you:

Traditional outline: Leverage an indented, hierarchical listing of your points. Provide key phrases or words.
Question-based outline: List questions that spark specific answers in the order you intend to cover your content.
Illustrated/picture-based outline: Graphically map out your ideas using icons, pictures, and words.

Finally, practice your presentation from your outline and allow yourself permission to vary how you speak your content; your wording need not be exactly the same each time. Outlines afford you the opportunity to adjust and adapt your content based on how you feel and how the audience responds. This flexibility reduces the likelihood of blanking out when compared to the more rigid memorizing approach.

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