It’s a well-known fact that what we actually say is only a small part of how our message is received. However, it can be difficult to say the message we want to communicate, let alone allowing that to combine with our body language, tone, and volume of voice.
Coming from someone who used to have a huge fear of public speaking, here are my top 3 tips to improve communication skills.
Hear me out. I know that practicing is probably the last thing you want to do so I’m suggesting a new method of practicing that doesn’t involve standing up in front of 20 people.
Method 1: talking to friends and family. You don’t even have to be practicing a speech, sales pitch, or interview questions; just talk to your friends as normal, with one tiny difference. Pay attention to your use of hesitation words such as ‘like’, ‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘ok’, etc. and notice how often you use them - is it when you don’t know what to say? When you can’t express yourself properly? Or is it just a habit?
The easiest way to do this when you first try is to record yourself and listen back to what you’ve said. You’ll realise 2 things: firstly, how much you hate the sound of your own voice, and secondly, what your hesitation words are and how often you use them. By becoming aware of them, and consciously trying to reduce their use in daily conversation, you’ll gradually eliminate them out of your everyday vocabulary and improve verbal communication skills.
Method 2: practicing in front of a virtual audience. Virtual reality (VR) tricks your mind into thinking what you see virtually is real so it’s an effective method of overcoming a fear of public speaking. A meta-study by the University of Oxford and the University of Barcelona proved that VR can be used to treat anxiety, so it’s definitely worth a try.
You can do this one in the comfort of your own home, away from people and actual speaking - yay! There are tonnes of videos online from motivational speakers and communications experts. Watch how these people present themselves - where they look, their tone of voice, the speed at which they speak, etc. Make a list of things they do that you want to replicate in your own speaking and then imitate what the speakers do when you’re talking.
Again, start small and scale up to a bigger audience as you become more comfortable and confident in your ability to deliver your message effectively. This isn’t an overnight quick-fix (unfortunately, there isn’t one) and you’ll have to practice to master speaking techniques and eliminate any bad linguistic habits you’ve picked up. If you persevere, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you'll improve verbal communication skills.
Here are two of my favourite videos to get you started:
Feedback is essential if you’re preparing for a specific speech or presentation. You could ask a friend to listen to your speech and give you feedback on what you’re saying and how you present. If that’s not convenient for you, there are some mobile apps that can help you by giving you instant feedback on areas you could improve. Public Speaking VR can track your hesitation words, pitch, volume, and speed, and give you feedback so that you can practice and improve on a daily basis.
If you want to improve verbal communication skills in a realistic environment, it’s a great way to bridge the gap between practicing in front of a mirror and performing the real thing, because you can practice in front of photo-realistic audiences in the safety of the virtual world. The mobile app also has training courses such as how to deal with distractions and maintain eye contact (it’ll even give you a heatmap of where in the audience you’ve been looking) so that you can learn techniques, practice them and improve.
I’ve used these techniques myself and they’ve really helped me improve communication skills and to not avoid public speaking. The advice of ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ or ‘practice in front of a mirror’ weren’t working for me because my fear of public speaking would lead me to avoiding it altogether. That’s why these communication methods, somewhat ironically, don’t actually involve interacting with an audience (not a real one anyway).
What would you do if you didn’t have a fear of public speaking? How would your life be different if you could communicate more effectively?