Talking is more than making noise. People use oral communication to empathize, cooperate, rebuke, request, inform, persuade, caress and attack. Speech, especially symbolic speech, is one of our most uniquely human attributes. Depending on what it is you want to accomplish when you talk, there are different ways of talking that limit or enhance the effectiveness of speech.
Verbal communication is not a one-way street, even in the church or the lecture hall. Someone is listening. The efficacy of speech is not measured by how something gets spoken or sent. The efficacy of speech is determined by how closely the listener’s understanding matches the intent of the speaker. Most misunderstandings, and the breakdowns in communication that result from misunderstandings, originate in the failure of a speaker to translate an idea into language that is understood by a listener the way it is meant by a speaker.
Word choice is not everything in effective speech, but it is crucially important. Words that are not part of a shared vocabulary between speaker and listener will either not be understood at all or taken to mean something that they don’t. Know who you are speaking to and adjust your language accordingly. If you yourself do not know the right word for something, look it up. You don’t want to speak to home improvement buffs about “parts” and “things” on the house. You want to call an alcove an alcove, a dormer a dormer and a joist a joist. Speak directly to your audience, neither above nor below the audience. Effective verbal communication is that which translates accurately through appropriate word choice and intelligible grammar.
Disconnections between speakers and listeners are caused by various distortions along the communication pathway. These distortions are not merely words, though some words are confusing, but time and place, surrounding conditions, preexisting relations, differences in belief systems, expectations and sensitivities. Moreover, spoken communications involve inflections understood through nonverbal cues, like body language and eye contact. Saying “no” to a child engaged in a hazardous act with a big smile will not be as effective as saying “no” with a serious frown.
There are those who believe that being right about something is enough reason for others to pay attention to them. While that may satisfy some abstract principle, with actual people it seldom works. People pay more attention to other people who are polite and respectful; and people tune out others who are abrasive or rude. Effective speakers treat their listeners as equals, worthy of common courtesy, and take the attitude that the attention of others is a privilege, not an entitlement.
Effective speech is not the same as pushing the button on a recorder and allowing the recording to play. Communication is give-and-take. An effective oral communicator will constantly attend to the reactions of his listeners. The body language and facial expressions of listeners is communicating with the speaker in ways that let the speaker know if the message is getting through. When possible, simply stop talking and check in by asking listeners if they understand or if they could tell you what they think you just said. Active observation and active listening are key aspects of effective verbal communication.
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