How to Develop Effective Verbal Communication Skills


Updated October 30, 2018 - Sophie Thompson

Communication skills are important for most jobs because they help you interact effectively with people you encounter at work, including customers, potential clients and colleagues. In this article, we cover a range of techniques for developing your verbal communication skills.

Characteristics of an effective communicator

An effective communicator's attributes include:

  • Active listening
  • Adaptability - adapting your communication styles to support the situation
  • Clarity
  • Confidence and assertiveness
  • Constructive feedback - giving and receiving it
  • Emotional intelligence - identifying and managing your emotions, as well as other people's emotions
  • Empathy
  • Interpersonal skills - social skills which are especially useful in building strong rapports
  • Interpretation of body language - this will help you understand how someone is feeling
  • Open-mindedness
  • Patience
  • Simplifying the complex
  • Storytelling


Techniques for improving your communication skills

Communication is a skill which means that you can develop and improve it. Here are some techniques which can refine your skills.

The power of the mind

Often we talk while we think but this can reduce our credibility because what we're saying is usually meaningless and we come across as nervous. Much of presence is about stillness, listening and providing thoughtful response. When answering questions and whilst engaging in conversation keep the following formula in mind and reply in a short, clear and concise way:

  • Think
  • Breathe
  • Speak

So don't just say the first thing that comes to mind, instead be thoughtful and concentrate on the meaning of what you wish to communicate. When speaking, understand exactly what message you're trying to get across. If you are unclear about your message then your audience won't understand either.

Positive visualisation

This tactic is employed by athletes before a race, they visualise themselves winning and focus on this idea intensely. This gives them a mental boost which translates into a physical one.

You can use this technique before a big presentation – imagine standing on a podium in front of hundreds of people, imagine delivering your speech and the audience looking engaged, imagine finishing up your speech and the audience applause.

Repeating this several times and immersing yourself in the event and the emotions will build effective communication skills.

Exercise - Positive Visualisation

  1. Find a quiet place to sit down and relax
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Think back to an experience you have had that made you feel really good. It can be anything - a personal accomplishment, a youthful memory, a successful project at work
  4. Take yourself back there and replay the sequence of events
  5. Be as detailed as you can in reliving the moment for yourself
  6. Hear the sounds, see the sights and feel the emotions
  7. Replay this a few times until you are immersed in this event
  8. Now open your eyes

This is a great technique to do before a presentation as it will help you control your nerves and it will increase your confidence for the event.

Keep your audience in mind

You must understand your audience to communicate effectively. By having this understanding you can tailor your communication to suit them so your message has the most impact.

To develop this skill you must imagine yourself in the audience's position - think of their demographic and shared characteristics. Ask: why are they attending? What do they want to find out? What level are they in terms of knowledge and experience?

Angry audience

Actively listen

Active listening is when you listen beyond the words being spoken - you understand the message being communicated. During conversations, a lot of the time the "listener" is thinking about how they're going to respond rather than concentrating on what the speaker is saying.

By really listening you can provide a more thoughtful answer that takes the speaker's thoughts and opinions into account. Like Richard Branson said "Listen more than you talk."

Active listening to a colleague

To develop active listening you should practice the following:

1. Pay attention

Give the speaker your complete attention:

  • Look at them directly and maintain eye contact.
  • Don't think about your reply whilst they're speaking.
  • Interpret their body language.
  • Try to avoid being distracted by what's happening around you.

2. Show the speaker that you're interested

  • Use your body language to highlight you're engagement, such as, nodding, smiling, maintaining an open posture etc.
  • Use prompts, such as, "uh huh", "yep" etc.
  • Clarify your understanding...

3. Clarify your understanding

You need to ensure that you understand what the speaker is saying without your judgments and beliefs getting in the way:

  • Reflect on what you have heard by summarising and paraphrasing, for example, "Sounds like you're saying…". Ensure you do this periodically in a conversation as it helps with your understanding and it's also another way to show the speaker than you're listening.
  • Ask questions to ensure that you understand everything, such as, "What do you mean when you say…" Ensure that these questions are non-judgemental.
  • Ask whether you've got it right and accept if you need to be corrected.
  • Ask for specific examples.
  • Admit if you're unsure about what the speaker means.
  • Ask the speaker to repeat something if you think it will help.

4. Don't interrupt or redirect the conversation

Interrupting is not helpful as it's irritating for the speaker and it reduces the time for you to understand the message:

  • Before saying anything ensure that the speaker has finished a point.

5. Provide a suitable response

  • Be honest when you respond but avoid attacking or making the speaker feel bad because this is unhelpful.
  • Provide your opinions politely.

These are the most common obstacles to active listening:

  • Losing concentration.
  • Jumping to conclusions which subsequently leads to false assumptions.
  • Hastily forming a response before the speaker is finished.
  • Arguing.

Be empathetic

To be empathetic means that you are able to identify and understand others' emotions i.e. imagining yourself in someone else's position. Understanding how people feel will help you communicate your thoughts and ideas in a way that makes sense to others and it helps you understand others when they communicate.

To develop empathy:

  • Imagine yourself in someone else's position. Even if you have not experienced a similar situation, remember a situation where you have felt the same emotion your colleague/employee is experiencing.
  • Practice listening to your colleagues without interrupting them.
  • Observe your colleagues and try to gauge how they're feeling.
  • Never ignore your colleagues' emotions, for example, if someone looks upset don't disregard this - address it.
  • Try to understand first rather than form a judgement. For example, you may initially feel annoyed at a colleague who seems cold and disinterested. However, after discovering they suffer from social anxiety you may feel more sympathetic.
  • To communicate your empathy keep your body language open and regulate your voice to show your sincerity.

Body language and posture

Your posture has the greatest impact on your communication. The impression you have on others is split approximately:

  • Body (visuals) 55%
  • Voice (sound) 38%
  • Words (content) 7%

Folded arms, crossed legs, hunched shoulders, hands in pockets, looking down – these are just some of the protective measures that make us feel safer, and should be avoided when giving a presentation or speech. Appearing relaxed makes us exert dominance and authority.

If you watch politicians speak, notice how relaxed and confident they appear, talking slowly and making positive body movements. Use your arms to emphasis a point and illustrate the message.

Read our 8 Elements of Confident Body Language.

Exercise – Posture

  1. Place your feet the same width apart as your hips.
  2. Feel your weight at the heel of your foot on the floor
  3. Think of your shoulders expanding out from one another.
  4. Do not hunch forward or pull your shoulders back - allow them to rest centrally.
  5. Hold your head level.
  6. Let your arms hang relaxed by your side.
  7. Spend a moment getting used to this position.
  8. Do a mental check around your body and make any adjustments you need to get comfortable.
  9. Try moving to another spot, regaining this relaxed position.

Centring

When a person is centred, they are balanced and relaxed. Getting used to placing your attention in your centre of gravity will help you achieve an open, relaxed posture, and make room for deeper, freer breath.

Think about the place half way between the front and back of your body, and just above your waist. Stand with your feet a shoulder length apart and let your arms hang loosely by your side. Try and put all your attention at this centre before an important meeting or presentation, it will increase your presence and bring you into the moment.

Visual rapport – things to consider

From top down: head, eyes, expressions, shoulders, posture, breathing, energy, arms, hands, gestures, movements, stance, legs and feet.

Diagram showing visual rapport areas

Using the full range of your voice

The human voice is capable of 24 notes on a musical scale. We use about three of these in everyday speech. Think about this next time you speak, as using a wider range will allow you to quickly develop effective communication skills. This will help enthuse, persuade and excite the person or people you are talking to.

Sound resonates in the mouth once your breath has delivered air to the vocal chords. Your tongue manipulates and shapes the sound, giving us speech, pitch and tone.

The more air in your lungs, the better the sounds resonate, giving us a wider range of audible voice. Most of us use less than a third of our vocal capacity and the reason is usually because we do not use our breath as well as we could.

To further understand how to use your voice, read the Toastmasters Speaking Voice Guide.

Breathe deeply to communicate effectively

Every time you think, you breathe. Every time you speak, you breathe. The fact that we breathe subconsciously, means we often don’t think about it when speaking. When we get nervous our breathing becomes shallow. Combine this with overlong sentences, which usually accompany speaking in public, and words begin to trail away at the end.

Maximising your breath and filling your lungs when speaking is very important for building effective communication skills. It makes you sound influential.

Remember to pause for emphasis, pause to take in a breath and pause to allow your message to sink in.

Exercise – Breathing

  1. Stand in the Neutral Position and put your hands on your stomach.
  2. Breathe deeply.
  3. Try to push your hands out as you breathe in by filling your ribs.
  4. Increase your awareness of this happening as you breathe - the movement and expansion of the ribs.

Control your nerves by practicing

The key to controlling your nerves is preparation. Spend plenty of time preparing your material, make sure you know it really well. While practicing, get someone to interrupt you at various points, then try to continue the presentation – this is a great way to make sure you’re not just presenting a rigid script.

Knowing your subject well will also help with answering questions afterwards, often the most nerve-wracking part of the presentation. The final presentation the audience sees is only a small percentage of the work required to get to that point with the planning and preparation.

Read our article on overcoming your presentation nerves.

Practice in a realistic setting

To quickly improve your verbal communication skills it's a good idea to practice in realistic settings:

Method 1

A particularly helpful setting for practicing communication skills is in meetings. In these situations people often have the tendency to think that their opinions don't matter or that people will negatively judge them if they speak up. But this isn't the case and it's likely that others in the room will also feel too afraid to say anything so they'll respect you when you do speak up.

What is valuable to you will be valuable to another person - at the end of the day your input matters so get comfortable sharing your opinions and ideas.

Method 2

Practice by 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 two 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 3

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.

Watch videos from experts

You can do this one in the comfort of your own home as there are lots of videos online from motivational speakers and communication 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.

Start small and scale up to a larger 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 improve your verbal communication skills quickly.

Matt Abrahams communication techniques video

Matt Abrahams giving a talk on how to 'Think Fast, Talk Smart'.

Here are two videos to get you started:

  • 'Think Fast, Talk Smart' - Matt Abrahams, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford Business School. This video is a great example of how to incorporate your personality to connect with the audience and ensure your message is clear and structured.
  • 'Why We Do What We Do' - Tony Robbins, motivational speaker. You can use this video to show you techniques such as pausing after important points, varying your pitch and using hand gestures to emphasise your message.

Get feedback on your verbal communication

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.

There are also mobile apps that can help you by giving you instant feedback on areas you could improve. The VirtualSpeech VR app 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.

Communicate effectively to become a successful person and have your voice heard.

8 rules for effective communication skills

  1. Think about both your content and your audience. Is your speech suitable?
  2. Understand the core message you are trying to get across and the three points you want your audience taking away with them
  3. Have an overview of your speech in mind before spending time on details
  4. Have a clear presentation structure and show it repeatedly to your audience so they know which section they are on and how long left
  5. Rehearse aloud. Record your voice and present to friends (if possible) to get feedback
  6. Try and keep your speech simple, focus on only a few points and explain them clearly
  7. Be enthusiastic, move around the stage and use body language to convey confidence
  8. Make a list of possible questions and rehearse answers for them

Communication barriers

You should be aware of potential communication barriers so you can try to manage them, such as:

  • Your lack of interest in what the speaker is saying.
  • Differing opinions and judgements as this may distort what you're hearing or lead to incorrect assumptions.
  • Physical issues, such hearing problem, speech difficulties, language differences.
  • Using technical terminology.
  • Worrying that you will offend the other person.
  • Physical barriers which may prevent you from seeing non-verbal cues.
  • Cultural differences.

Final thoughts

Communication is one of the most effective skills that you can cultivate for work so it's worth the effort to develop it. It's also helpful to keep in mind the following when working on your communication:

  • What we hear last is remembered the easiest.
  • We remember things that are presented with an impact, such as, using emotional appeals (pathos).
  • We remember things that we have use for.
  • We remember what we hear frequently so repetition is important.