In meetings, emails, conversations, and conference calls, business leaders spend roughly 80% of their time communicating. So, it’s a significant waste of time and resources if that communication isn’t effective. When it comes to the way we speak to others—either groups or individuals—we can often be inadvertently doing or saying things that undermine our effectiveness.
American English is typically spoken at roughly 183 words per minute, but we can listen and understand at up to 400 words per minute. The difference can lead to distraction, says speech coach Ethan F. Becker, PhD, president of the Speech Improvement Company, a speech and communications coaching firm, and author of Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead, Manage and Influence. "There are all sorts of conversations in the back of our mind," he says. "When I add filler words or something like that, I increase the chance of miscommunication."
Are you doing or saying things that make people tune out or distract them from your message? Here are eight common habits to avoid.
Common phrases like, "You think that’s bad? Listen to this!" could be intended to communicate a shared experience, but actually sounds dismissive of the other person’s message or experience, Becker says. That can be off-putting. Suddenly your conversation partner or audience is put in defensive mode rather than listening to your experience. It’s better to affirm that you heard the other person’s story or experience and state that you can relate because you’ve been through something similar, then tell your story, he says. Using the word "but" can have a similar effect.
Words like "um," "you know," or "like," are filler words—Becker calls them "vocalized pauses"—that we tend to repeat out of habit or because of nervousness. Research his team at the Speech Improvement Company has done found that while a few instances per minute doesn’t typically deter the message, upwards of six per minute becomes increasingly distracting and makes it difficult for the listener to focus on what you have to say.
It’s important to not be condescending to your audience, but even if you’re in a room full of people who are fluent in industry jargon, they don’t want to hear people speak that way for too long, says Kory Floyd, PhD, professor of communication at the University of Arizona and author of Communication Matters.
Using too much technical language, "or even $5 words when a 50¢ word will do," makes language more complicated than it needs to be, says Floyd. Being accessible and specific in your language doesn’t mean "dumbing it down." You’re simply making it easier for people to truly understand what you’re saying, he says.
Similarly, the first rule of great communication is to understand your own style, strengths, and weaknesses and adapt to them. Trying to be overly formal when that’s not really who you are can sound inauthentic and make listeners less likely to hear your message.
When you speak in the same tone throughout the conversation or presentation, you risk losing your audience, Becker says. It’s important to change your speaking patterns, especially when you’re speaking to groups, he says. Moving from an animated, fast-paced speech pattern to one that’s more leisurely and relaxed can help keep your audience engaged. If they hear too much of the same speech pattern, they may "zone out," because monotonous speech patterns can be boring, he says.
A well-known Seinfeld episode put the term "close talker"—someone who moves in close, especially face-to-face, when speaking to another person—into the common lexicon. In interpersonal communication, ensuring proper personal space is essential, says communication expert Leil Lowndes, author of How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships.
But it’s not as simple as it seems. If someone moves in close and you pull back abruptly, you could inadvertently send the signal that you’re not open to what they have to say. At the same time, if the person is making you uncomfortable, you need to adjust your distance so that you can effectively speak. Sometimes, getting interpersonal space right is like "a little dance," she says, but take your cues from your counterpart and your own comfort level.
It’s well-known that eye contact is important in interpersonal communication, but there’s a fine line between being warm and engaging and making listeners feel intimidated or threatened, Becker says.
Communications-analytics company Quantified Communications found that adults make eye contact between 30% and 60% of the time while speaking to individuals or groups, yet they should make eye contact roughly 60% to 70% of the time.
Becker says that when you’re speaking to a group, it’s important to vary eye contact around the room. Common advice to speakers is to pick more than two or three faces to avoid making those few people very uncomfortable, he says.
Whether you’re speaking to a person or a group, failing to allow appropriate interaction can leave your audience members feeling like you don’t care about their feedback, Floyd says. These exchanges are supposed to have give-and-take, he points out. When there’s no opportunity to participate, listeners may lose interest.