How to Develop Effective Verbal Communication Skills


Updated March 03, 2021 - Dom Barnard

Verbal communication skills are more important than ever. Countless meetings, presentations, code reviews, conferences and networking events mean that clear and assertive verbal communication are essential for current and future jobs.

Good communication skills can be the difference between getting a promotion or moving laterally, selling your product or struggling with slow growth, influencing colleagues with your idea or doing what you are told.

Article contents

Why is verbal communication important?

Communication skills are important to many aspects of your life and career, including:

  • Managerial role - how do you command respect from your colleagues while building a strong culture and team spirit? How do you deal with an unexpected crisis and communicate your action plan to your team? Oral communication skills are essential for many areas of management.
  • Workplace success – you’ll frequently be talking to clients, customers, talking in team meetings, requesting information, giving feedback and discussing problems. All require strong communication skills so that you are understood clearly without any misinterpretation.
  • Secure a new job – in employer surveys, oral communication skills consistently rank amongst the top soft skills companies look for. They want new employees to be able to speak clearly, concisely and confidently.
  • Advance your career – it’s important to be able to communicate your thoughts on how the processes, products or services can be improved. Business value these skills in management positions.

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 verbal communication

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 your 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 halfway 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 cords. 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.

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 mastering speaking techniques and eliminate any bad linguistic habits you’ve picked up. If you persevere, you’ll improve your verbal communication skills quickly.

Here are two more videos to get you started:

  • 'How great leaders inspire action' - Simon Sinek presents a simple but powerful model for how leaders inspire action, starting with a golden circle and the question "Why?"
  • '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.

5 ways to practice verbal communication skills

Studies on the benefits of practice

Many studies have taken place on the benefits of practice. We've summarised three key benefits for you.

Benefits of practicing oral communication skills:

  • Practice greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll remember new information (Anderson, 2008).
  • Practice increases your ability to apply knowledge automatically, without reflection. This is usually only achieved through extensive rehearsal and repetition, and frees up your cognitive resources to handle other tasks. (Brown & Bennett, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006).
  • Receive feedback on your communication skills so you know where and how to improve

You should think of practice not as rote repetition, but as deliberate, goal-directed rehearsal paired with reflection on communication skills.

Learning vs. practicing

You may be accustomed to being good at what you do. Learning something new is hard, especially at the beginning when we’re likely to struggle and make mistakes. The reality is, the only way to learn something new is to practice.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something. Perhaps more of a realist, Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA, writes that to go from “knowing nothing to being pretty good” takes about 20 hours of practice. So whether you aspire to be “pretty good” or an “expert,” practice is essential.

Some people believe that intellectual understanding is enough for skill development. However, many studies have shown this is not that case – we need to practice, get feedback, refine our approach, practice again and generally apply the knowledge we learn. This is hard to do.

You can spend hours learning about communication skills, but without actually practicing what you learn, you’ll only have an intellectual understanding as opposed to skill development.

After learning how to communicate, you’ll need to practice what you’ve learnt in order to develop the skill. We’ve listed both traditional and new methods you can use to practice your communication skills.

1. Web-based simulations

More and more you may find yourself communicating over video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Skype. These require a unique set of skills compared to in-person communication.

You can practice your oral communication skills in simulations which mimic video-conferencing software, as well as watch yourself back and receive automated feedback on your performance.

  • How to Present over Video - Practice how to deliver successful video-based presentations on Zoom, Skype, Webex, Teams and more.
  • Ace your Video Interview - Practice how to deliver successful video-based sales pitches on popular video conferencing platforms.
  • Online Interview Training - Learn how to ace your video-based interview with best practices and mock interview simulations.

Practice your communication skills in realistic web-based simulations.

2. Professional coaching

This can be in person or through a phone / Skype call. We’ve listed three examples of communication skills coaching.

  • RADA Coaching - RADA can enable you to transform all aspects of your leadership, help you to master communication skills such as personal impact, presence and authenticity, or support you on a specific workplace challenge or presentation.
  • Public Speaking and Presentation Coaching - get a tailored presentation skills coaching program to your skill level, over the phone or through Skype, so you achieve your goals as quickly as possible.
  • Public Speaking and Communications Coaching - personalised sessions of communication skills, presentation skills or public speaking coaching to help you to develop your self-confidence, focus on specific issues or prepare for a particular event.

3. Virtual reality environments

Virtual reality (VR) lets you practice verbal communication techniques in realistic environments from the comfort of your own home. It’s a great middle ground between an online course and in-person coaching. For a more detailed list of VR apps, read our article on top public speaking apps.

VR used in a presentation at a meeting

VR being used to practice a presentation.

4. Friends or colleagues

This is a great way to get detailed feedback on how you are performing. Set yourself a task and ask your colleague or friend to observe you and then give you feedback.

Giving and receiving feedback is a powerful process but needs to be handled sensitively and should follow these guidelines:

  • Be specific on what needs to improve
  • Provide evidence on where they can change
  • Give feedback on any emotional impact you felt
  • Be constructive, provide 3 positives and 2 areas to improve
  • Listen and don’t interrupt
  • Act on the feedback straight away if possible

5. Solo with a video camera or voice recorder

By using a video camera or voice recorder, you can work on your oral communication style. Work with short sections - for example if you need to make a presentation, start by working on your opening.

Perform and watch / listen back a number of times until you feel you have developed what you have done sufficiently to move on.

In this method of working, you alternate the role of subject and observer. When you are observing / listening to yourself, clarify any feedback by writing down what you are developing or changing. This will help you measure your progress as well as structuring your development.


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.