13 Conquer verbal communications

In chapter 12, you built a foundation for effective communication in writing. Now it’s time to use those skills to conquer verbal communications. I’ve always found writing to be a bit easier because I can usually take my time with it. It’s not of-the-moment, right in someone’s face, as verbal communications are. But many of the lessons of written communications are fully applicable to verbal ones, making writing a great starting point. Let’s step up to speaking.

13.1 Stepping up to verbal communications

If you’ve really started working on your writing, your verbal communications will automatically become easier and less stressful. If you write like you speak, you’ll be teaching your brain to organize your thoughts for you, and it’ll do so in a way that makes it easier to speak as well.

If you have something formal to present verbally—maybe a team status meeting or some other fairly routine communication—start by writing yourself a script ahead of time. Read that script aloud to yourself ahead of time. Do multiple read-throughs, editing the script until the read-through feels effortless and natural.

At first, read from the script when you do your presentation. That might seem weird, depending on the group you’re speaking to, so acknowledge it: “I’ve been working on my communications skills, and today I’ll be reading from a prepared set of notes.” If you’ve done enough read-throughs ahead of time, you’ll be able to look up from the page now and again and make eye contact with people.

Look up as you finish a paragraph When I’m reading from a script in front of people, I’ll look up and make eye contact for the last sentence in each paragraph. My read-throughs give me the confidence to scan the sentence, look up, and recite it. Because it’s the end of the paragraph, there’s a white space after it, which makes it easy for my eyes to return to the same spot on the page afterward and not lose my place..

When you start gaining some comfort with reading from your scripts, you can start using notes instead. Still write the script, but don’t take it into the meeting. Instead, take some notecards to remind you of what was in the script. Continue doing your advance read-throughs, and rely on the notes to remind you what to say. This process may be terrifying at first; push through. Over time, it will become more comfortable and natural. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you don’t need the script at all: you can assemble the information as you speak. That may take years (it did for me), but it’s worth the time.

Need to make progress faster? If better verbal communications are an immediate for your career, consider joining an organization that focuses on public speaking skills, such as Toastmasters.

Finally, try to make eye contact whenever you’re speaking. I almost always pick two or three friendly-looking faces that are evenly spaced around the room and rotate eye contact between them. They’re usually people I know, people who are smiling, or people who in some other way don’t look like they might eat me for lunch. It gives the illusion that you’re looking around the room, even if you technically aren’t.

13.2 Conquering your fear of speaking

Most tech people I meet don’t relish the idea of public speaking. For some, presenting to an audience of more than one is terrifying; others are fine with small groups but hate being in the spotlight at the front of a conference room or on a stage. In talking with many people about this over the years, I’ve found that the fears boil down to a few root causes that actually aren’t that hard to conquer.

13.2.1 Fear of not having all the answers

One of every instructor’s biggest fears is a student asking a question that the instructor can’t answer. It’s a common fear in any kind of speaking, and it ties back to Imposter Syndrome, which I discuss a lot in this book. “If I keep quiet,” our instincts tell us, “nobody will know I’m really the dumbest one in the room.” That’s something we all have to get past:

  • Nobody knows everything. It’s fine to speak about something that you aren’t an omniscient expert on; nobody else is either. Review what you plan to speak about ahead of time, remind yourself to be confident in what you know, and forge ahead.

  • Be prepared to take notes. If someone asks something you don’t know, immediately jot it down, offer to follow up later with an answer, and move on. We all know that we don’t all know everything, right? Admitting that you don’t know, but making a note and offering to follow up later, is the best anyone can ask of you. Make sure you do follow up, of course!

  • Try to anticipate questions. This is an area where a lot of technologists I know struggle. I was asked to present to my company’s executives (the so-called C suite, consisting of the CEO and all his direct reports) on a project that we’d been exploring. They were looking for a detailed recommendation, and I moved through the material I’d prepared fairly confidently. Then the CFO asked, “Are we sure we’re going to be able to earn additional revenue on this if it’s a product?” I was dumbstruck. My executive had asked my team to research this and present a recommendation; it had never occurred to me that I’d need to know whether or not the product would . . . you know . . . be worth it or not. I admitted to the CFO that I didn’t have that information and that I’d follow up later. After the meeting, I worked with some other teams to find an answer.

Perhaps most important, I learned a little bit more about how the business operated. In future presentations like that, I knew to anticipate those questions and have answers ready. That experience—like almost any experience where you realize you don’t know something and then work to find out—helped make me a better businessperson as a whole.

13.2.2 Fear of being judged

Obviously, none of us wants to look stupid or silly in front of our peers, our bosses, our colleagues, or anyone, right? Except for one or two unfortunate examples that I’ve come to realize were real outliers, I’ve come to understand that most people are rooting for other people. Your peers, your boss, and your colleagues generally want to see you succeed. Maybe they’re not great at showing it; sometimes, they’re just as afraid as you are of letting their body language show their support, for fear that they’ll be judged, but their support is there.

Don’t worry about being judged. Instead, build up your skills and confidence. I’ve probably talked with a thousand other technologists and asked them how they overcame this part of their fear of speaking, and their many answers boiled down to one: practice. The more you speak in front of other people, the more comfortable you’ll become, and the more you will come to understand that your audience is genuinely cheering you on, even if they’re doing so silently and stoically, behind a poker face of sorts.

Organizers like Toastmasters exist in large part to provide an opportunity to practice, but you don’t need a formal organization to get your hours in. Hard as it may be, volunteer to do brief presentations at work. Force yourself to do it, despite your fear. Eventually, I promise, it’ll become easier and easier. As your fear dissipates, you’ll be able to focus more of your attention on refining your speaking skills until you’re comfortable, calm, collected, and effective as a verbal communicator.

13.3 Common verbal defeaters

Few people are perfect orators. Most of us have brains that seem to operate at different speeds from our mouths, and most of us have anxieties and fears that hold us back. The good news is that you don’t need to be a perfect orator. You only need to be good enough. If you focus on three basic, straightforward practices, you’ll get to more than good enough quicker than you might think.

Squash those verbal, um, fillers

The next time you’re speaking to someone, ask them if you can record the conversation for your own later analysis. Count the number of times you say “like,” “um,” “uh,” “ya know,” or any of those other verbal fillers. Then go look up a really good public speaker. Specifically, go look up a speech by former US President Barack Obama. It doesn’t matter what you think of his politics, and you don’t even need to listen to the words he says. Pay attention to his speech pattern. This is a little hard to convey in writing, but Obama . . . paused . . . a lot. I’ve wondered whether he had a problem with “um” or “uh” earlier in his life.

The little verbal fillers happen when our brains need to stop for a half-second to catch up. For some reason, we believe that we have to fill every single moment when we’re speaking, so we insert a filler: it’s like when, uh, we just need a break.

Instead of using the verbal filler, train yourself to pause. It does not sound weird, trust me. In fact, it gives your audiences’ brains a chance to catch up as well. The pause will sound unnatural to you at first, but go watch any TED talk video and tell me how many times the presenter uses a verbal filler like “uh.” It’ll be approximately zero in most cases, but you’ll hear plenty of verbal pauses where an “uh” could have gone.

When you start this process, you’re going to trip yourself up a lot. You’re going to become hyperaware of the verbal fillers. I once caught myself saying something like “So we’re going to look at the, um, oh sorry, the um, the database console, sorry.” That wasn’t a fun day. But you do get past it, I swear. And when you do, your speech will automatically sound less fragmented, less chaotic, smoother, more planned, and more professional.

Use your voice as an instrument

Humans have been living together as a species for a long time. As a result, we’ve developed a great many nonverbal means of communicating: facial expressions, general body language, hand gestures, and so on. Those complement our verbal communications, lending nuance and emotion to what we’re saying. But we’ve also developed a subverbal language, meaning that it’s not just what we say that communicates, it’s also how we say it. Think about the different ways you could say “Oh, that’s nice” to someone, and you’ll start to understand the concept.

Listen to the YouTube video at https://bit.ly/CompareSiri, which compares the original voice of Apple’s Siri assistance with a newer rendition from several years later. The original voice is flat and robotic, placing slight emphasis in strange spots. The new voice is better, but it’s still light years from a human voice. It gets the emphasis wrong in places, and it still raises the pitch of its voice in odd spots. You don’t want to be Siri when you speak.

I have a friend who hates the sound of his voice. He dislikes it so much that he refuses to let anyone record him saying anything. I’ve been in the room with him when he was on a conference call for work, and I kind of see where he’s coming from. His work voice is extremely flat and emotionless. It’s like someone once told him that work speaking should be emotionless and robotic, and he embraced that. He still sounds better than Siri, but his voice isn’t as engaging, compelling, or human as it could be.

The sad thing is that it’s all an act. He doesn’t talk like that around his friends, and I suspect he doesn’t even talk like that around the office. In those situations, his voice rises and falls naturally. The pitch of his voice rises when he asks a question and falls slightly when he’s making a firm statement. In the culture he and I share, those are the normal and expected speech patterns for an adult. But in a formal speaking engagement, such as a meeting, he goes all flat. He speaks in something close to a monotone, the pitch of his voice varying only slightly. It’s eerie.

It reminds me a little bit of being asked—or forced, depending on your perspective—to read aloud when I was in grade school. Some kids loved it, adding slightly different voices to different characters’ speech. Other kids clearly didn’t enjoy it, reading in a robotic monotone that made it hard to assemble what they were saying into sentences.

Your voice is a powerful, beautiful instrument. The brains of your fellow humans are preprogrammed to react to that instrument, to feel certain emotions when you speak in a given way and to respond to subverbal cues like the pitch of your voice.

I’ve found that one way to get better at using my voice is to first be comfortable with the content I’m planning to present. That’s why I do read-throughs in advance. Sometimes, for a really important presentation, I’ll mark up a script:

Good morning. //

Today, I’m going to address a critical problem that we’ve been dealing with for a couple of months now, /// and focus on three potential paths forward_. //

The problem is one of data security, // which is something our executive team / has identified as a top priority for this quarter_. ///

As many of you know, // our current data management tools are simply overwhelmed / with the amount of data we have to manage. // Customer data, / internal analysis data, / and product data are all growing at exponential rates_.

I use /// slashes to tell myself where to pause. The more slashes, the longer the pause. For three slashes, that’s a long enough pause to quickly scan the room with my eyes. Underlined words are ones I want to lightly emphasize; I use italics for a stronger emphasis. The _ underscore reminds me to let my voice pitch stay even or drop slightly; I usually only want my voice pitch to rise at the end of a sentence if that sentence poses a question.

My italics are often ways of sharply highlighting particular words or word pairs. If you were to imagine the above passage having an accompanying PowerPoint slide deck, then you’d be looking at a slide that said Problem: Data Security. I’d probably then slide in bullets for the three types of data I mention.

So briefly, here’s my methodology, and you should consider constructing a markup methodology that makes sense to you.




Heavier emphasis


Lighter emphasis

/ // ///

Pauses—the more slashes, the longer the pause.

That passage takes me about 35 seconds to read through. Try timing yourself reading that aloud, placing all the emphasis and pauses in place that I’ve noted. If you’re much faster than 35 seconds, you’re probably rushing it. Slow down. Remember, your voice is an instrument, and people need time to hear and react to it. Practice putting emphasis in different places, and even record yourself. If you don’t like how you sound . . . then fix it. Practice until you do like how you sound, because other people will probably like it a lot as well. Practice, practice, practice.

Practice staying on track

I have a dear friend who seems to be biologically incapable of staying on track. This is a common example of our conversations:

FRIEND: So you know when I was out hiking? It was Sunday—or no, was it Saturday? We went to brunch Sunday, but I thought Saturday was too hot. Was it—

ME: Does it matter?

FRIEND: It might have been Friday. Anyway, I was out with Angela, and she brought her sister along. Mary? Marsha? She’s the one from Iowa. I think it was Mary. Hey, [turns to other friend] was it Mary? Angela’s sister, the—

ME: Does it matter? Let’s call her Mary.

FRIEND: Anyway, we’d just got back from the hike, and Angela drove. She’s got one of those new Kia SUVs, the Yukon—

ME: Yukon is GMC.

FRIEND: No, it was definitely a Kia, because—

ME: I’m going to the bar.

Our conversations are notable only when they don’t have a dozen irrelevant tangents. In your professional communications, you want to try and avoid that kind of behavior.

I find it helps to really focus your mind, right at the outset, on the outcome of what you’re about to say. What is the goal? In the previous example, it turns out my friend’s goal was to point out that Angela’s new SUV had a heads-up display that projected the current speed and other information onto the windshield right in front of the driver. That fact took a full 20 minutes to get to. It was fine; we were at a bar talking. But as a professional communication, my friend could have started with “The new Kia SUVs have a heads-up display” and basically ended there as well.

Remember: communicating is storytelling. You want to get to the moral of the story pretty much as quickly as possible, with as few side paths as possible along the way.

13.4 Finding the right amount of assertive

When it comes to communicating, whether in writing or speaking, I still struggle with how to be the right amount of assertive. I happen to be the kind of person who has strong opinions, and I don’t mind sharing them in the right place and at the right time. If my boss asks a question about how our team should be doing something, I’m often the first one to offer options. So I don’t have a problem being assertive. But sometimes, that can come off as too assertive, making other people feel like there’s no room in the conversation for them. I certainly don’t want that.

Verbal assertiveness is the most noticeable While it’s certainly possible to be over-assertive in writing, I think verbal communications are where assertiveness becomes the most noticeable. Our tone of voice, our body language, and our simple passion for something can come across much more easily in verbal communications.

Other people, however, do have difficulty asserting themselves—oftentimes because they’re simply more polite than I am. And some other people have even less of a problem being assertive than I do, often coming across as aggressive and pushy. So there’s definitely a spectrum, as shown in figure 13.1.


Figure 13.1 The spectrum of assertiveness

I think most professional people generally need to aim for the middle of the spectrum: when you have an informed opinion on a subject, bring it to the table. Be open to discussing it. Listen to pros and cons, and be open to evolving your opinion based on the facts presented to you.

At one wrong end of the spectrum is the overly aggressive person who pushes only for their perspective, who is not open to facts or reasoned objections, and who dominates the conversation with their opinion. Sometimes, that kind of over-assertive attitude is cultural: there are places where it’s not only socially acceptable to behave that way, it’s practically mandatory if you want to get anything done. To those people, I suggest they express, don’t repress. Your opinion is valuable, I tell them, but it is not the only opinion. Your co-workers’ opinions are also valuable, and those co-workers deserve a chance to be heard without having to shout you down. If you’re seen as a repressive communicator, you’ll damage your career and your professional network.

At the other wrong end of the spectrum is the under-assertive person who rarely offers their perspective. Their reticence often comes down to Imposter Syndrome: they’re afraid to speak up, because everyone else in the room is so much smarter than them. Or sometimes, the under-assertive person was just raised to guard against being over-assertive, and they’re being a little more cautious than they need to be. Or, perhaps the under-assertive person just isn’t interested in a yelling match with an overassertive person. Regardless of where it comes from, I offer this advice: express yourself. The fact that you’re in the room at all means you earned your place there. You not only have a right to contribute to the discussion, you have an obligation to do so, because it’s part of what you’re being paid to do as your job.

Whomever you are and whatever you do for a living, practice keeping yourself in the middle of the spectrum when communicating. Make room for other people’s opinions, and support others for offering their perspectives. Put yourself into the discussion, and offer your colleagues some trust that they’ll welcome your participation.

13.5 Persuasion and the art of listening

One of the main reasons humans communicate is to exchange information and ideas; another main reason we communicate is to persuade each other. Persuasion is not a bad thing: if you and I are working on a problem, we might each have different ideas about how to solve it. In a healthy working relationship, I might persuade you to see how my way would best solve the problem. You might try to persuade me that your way would be best. So long as we can both join in a fact-based, data-driven discussion, and so long as we are both open to being persuaded by facts and data, our debate is a healthy one that will likely lead to the best possible outcome given what we know.

But the trick about persuasion is that it requires the active participation of both parties. If you’re not listening to me, I can’t persuade you of something. If I’m suggesting something that you know is physically impossible, and if I’m not listening to your objections, then I’ll never persuade you. We might argue a lot, but we’ll never really get anywhere.

Here’s how to get someone to actively participate in being persuaded by you: listen to them. Let’s suppose you’re trying to convince your boss to purchase a new software tool that will help make everyone’s job easier and faster. Your boss is objecting:

The money for this wasn’t really in the budget. I could probably find it, but I can’t just do this on the promise of increased productivity.

Your boss has just told you everything you need to know to persuade them. What the boss did is express their particular perspective, and their own motivations. Once you know their perspective, what they care about, you can start crafting an argument that speaks to their concerns.

The boss cares about the budget, but the price alone isn’t the objection in this case. What the boss really cares about is productivity, and being able to prove that the expenditure increased productivity. It sounds like there may have been past instances where investments of this type didn’t create a positive return, and so the boss is a little worried about that happening again.

Notably, the boss didn’t express an interest in making everyone’s job easier. That’s often the case: everyone is getting paid the same, and “easier jobs” doesn’t always translate to “better outcomes.” Now you might be thinking, “Sure, but if our jobs are easier, we can do more work.” Not untrue, but you need to express yourself using the terminology of the person you’re trying to persuade. If the boss uses the word productivity, use that word. Understand what it means, and how it’s measured.

Actually, boss, this tool should help us increase our number of successful builds per day by about 25%. I’ve spoken with friends at other companies who use this, and it’s just wiped out all of their manual labor so they can focus on coding. We measure productivity partly on successful builds per day, right?

Persuade people by listening and by giving them answers in their terms, that they care about.

13.6 Action items

Here are some exercises to help you practice and improve your communications, with a particular focus on written communications:

  • Create reasons to hold short verbal presentations—maybe just a 10-minute briefing in front of your own team, for example. Ask someone to record you speaking (a smartphone recording is fine), and review that afterwards. Given what you’ve read in this chapter, what might you change about your presentation? Continue working through small presentations until you feel yourself becoming more comfortable and effective.

  • Ask a colleague at work to score your next verbal presentation, whether it’s just a small meeting with your team, or an important presentation in front of the bosses. Ask them where they felt you were compelling or not, where they think you stayed on-track or not, and how well you avoided using verbal fillers.

  • The next time you speak with a group—even if it’s just your team—ask them if you can record it, so that you can listen to yourself later. Critique yourself, and find one or two specific things to work on improving.

  • Listen carefully to other speakers, both good and bad. Make notes immediately afterwards: What did you like about them? What didn’t you like? Do you see any of those “don’t-like” characteristics in your own speaking? What might you learn from those other speakers to help improve your own verbal communications skills?

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