If you’ve ever had trouble putting words to your thoughts, you’re not alone. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we failed to make people understand what we were feeling because we couldn’t find the right words to communicate effectively.
Being articulate,” as Dr. Grace Lee, a public speaker and neuroscience expert, put it, “is nothing more than being able to express your thoughts and ideas in a way that people can understand.” But as simple as it sounds, there are more than enough ways to screw things up with verbal communication. And according to Dr. Grace, here are simple things you can do to improve your communication skills.
People connect more with how you say your words than the words you use. Learning how to be more expressive of your emotion will help you more effectively convey the meaning behind what you’re trying to say.
One way you can practice self-expression is to take improvising, acting, singing classes, or anything that will make you learn to be more expressive in front of people. As Dr Lee herself narrated, when she was in college, as a shy person, she didn’t feel comfortable talking in front of people, let alone expressing her emotions and conveying her perspective in discussions.
But during the second half of her degree, she auditioned for a musical. And that experience brought her out of her comfort zone, helping her become more expressive. As she said,
“Even though I didn’t get the part, that experience of auditioning for the part, and training to become that actor that they would select really helped me to free my mind to be able to express myself in an authentic way.”
Power up your vocabulary
This isn’t about going to the dictionary and learning difficult words. If you expand your vocabulary with harder words, instead of engaging with you, people will put more energy into trying to understand what you’re saying, and this will be the death of your conversations.
Being articulate means expressing your perspectives clearly, hence, as Dr. Grace said, “it’s not about expanding your vocabulary to harder words, it’s about learning more words that express your emotions.” Focus on descriptive words, especially the ones that express how you feel. For instance, words like joyful, stunning, bright, adorable, precious, etc., are simple ways to add more life to your self-expression. The more you’re able to incorporate them into sentences, the more people will be able to feel what you feel.
Using a series of long sentences in conversations makes you boring and hard to understand. What you want to do is follow a long sentence or two with a short one.
But how can you calculate the length of your sentences when you’re already engaged in a conversation?
Well, using variation in conversation isn’t about counting the words in your sentence. It’s about listening to your rhythm. Saying a series of long sentences is neither enjoyable for the listener nor the speaker. If your goal is to pass a message across in a meaningful and clear manner, the length of your sentences should naturally be a mixture of long and short. As Dr. Lisa explained,
“Varying your sentences helps get your message across more clearly. If you use three or more sentences in tandem, then you might lose your audience due to an overload of information.”
In addition to varying the length of your sentences, also try to vary your speed when you speak. Doing this will help emphasize certain parts of your speech or conversations, thereby creating the “special moment” effect on others. This will in turn help people to understand, follow, and connect more with what you say.
If you’re speaking to an audience and you’re trying to express something exciting, speak louder and faster. But for a sad or serious story, a slow and soft tone will be a better way to pass the message.
One of the things we dread the most about conversations is moments of awkward silence. But the thing is, not all silence is awkward. In fact, silence can be a good thing if you know how to use it. As Dr. Grace put it,
“You want to strategically insert pauses before and after the points that you’re trying to emphasize.”
Using pauses is better than using feeler words. But if you’re accustomed to using feeler words, it’s okay to use them once in a while, but not all the time. If you want to be more articulate, you must get comfortable with having silence.
Use tone and accentuation
Accentuation means making certain syllabus more distinct by either saying them more loudly or putting more emphasis on them. And being more aware of your tone and accentuation can help make your words and expressions more impactful in conversations.
In most languages, like Chinese, the tone is word-specific. Meaning, if you change the tone for a word, you change the meaning of that word. But as Dr. Grace explained, in English, the tone is statement-specific. Meaning if you change your tone, you’re changing what you’re saying.
Consider this statement which Dr. Grace used to express the significance of tone in how you express yourself:
“I didn’t think your website was outdated.”
If you say this statement with emphasis on “I”, it implies that someone else thought the website was outdated, not you.
But if your tone emphasizes the word “website”, it implies that it’s not the person’s website you think is outdated, it’s something else that he or she owns.
Emphasize the word “outdated”, then it implies that you are thinking something else about the website, not that it is outdated.
Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, the tone you use to speak is constantly shaping what you’re saying. Hence, being more conscious of the tone you use to speak will help you be more deliberate about the impact you want your words to make on people when you speak to them.
Listen to yourself in normal conversations and pay attention to how you feel when you hear your own voice. Do you feel energized or drowsy? Do you feel pleasant or irritated? As Dr. Lee explained, if you feel irritated about the sound of your voice, chances are, other people feel the same way too.
A more practical way to use this strategy is to record yourself in a normal conversation so that you have opportunities to listen to yourself over and over.
Also, you can get feedback from other people you trust and permit them to give you their honest feedback about what they think when they listen to you in conversations. After knowing how you and others feel when they hear you speak, then seek ways to improve so that you can come across as more pleasant to listen to.
People don’t see you through their eyes, they see you through your eyes. Give them the impression that you’re a hundred percent confident, that you are an authority in the subject matter that you’re talking about. Make them believe what you’re saying. As Dr. Lisa advised, part of portraying confidence is to project your voice. In her words,
“A good rule of thumb is to be able to talk so that someone 10 ft away from you can hear you and understand what you’re saying.”
Good communication boils down to making people feel and understand what you feel. But just feeling something isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be able to pass it across effectively. The process cannot be left to emotions. Like any other skill, you have to hone your speaking skills by deliberately observing and improving yourself. To recap…
- Find ways (like acting classes) or exercises that force you to express yourself
- Power up your vocabulary by learning descriptive words
- Use short and long sentences together to express yourself in a clearer and more meaningful way
- Use silence to convey more meaning to your speech or conversations
- Use tone and accentuation
- Become more aware of how you articulate by listening to yourself
- Portray self-assurance