Communicating with Confidence
If I asked each of you to picture a confident communicator, I imagine your choices would vary greatly. Some may envision a person who speaks loudly with authority. Others may picture someone who can easily support their claims by pointing to a breadth of research. Still, someone else may imagine a quieter individual whose voice cuts through a crowd because of the clarity of their message. Confident communicators embody no one single form. The commonality they share is knowing their audience, knowing their main message, and creating overlap between the two.
While this sounds simple, putting it into practice is less so. I imagine we all have our stories where confident communication eluded us, just as we can all picture a confident communicator who, seemingly, has never flubbed a day in her life.
I picture Gwynne Shotwell, president of Space X, who was interviewed by Chris Anderson on the TED stage. At one point, he pushed back against her proposal of flying the Big Falcon Rocket like an aircraft for point-to-point travel on Earth. "Gwynne, come on," Chris Anderson began. "This is awesome, but it's crazy. This is never going to actually happen." Without missing a beat, Shotwell replied, "This is definitely going to happen," and went on to provide details supporting her assertion. Gwynne Shotwell was self-assured in the face of resistance. Her answers were clear, concise, and on-point for her audience.
How can we display similar poise and channel our inner confident communicator, both when we're prepared and when we're caught off guard? Here are four tips to help you achieve more effective communication.
CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE. Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "If you don't know about your audience, you're lecturing, not communicating." Great communicators can step outside their own knowledge to see the topic with empathy from their audience's perspective. As a result, the examples and explanations a communicator uses resonate and are clear to that audience. The message doesn't change, but how it's delivered changes depending on the composition of the audience. By knowing your audience, you're also better prepared when asked to speak up unexpectedly.
KNOW YOUR MESSAGE. If you had time to share only one sentence with your audience, what would it be? Don't settle for the first sentence you write down. Ask yourself: How can I make this sentence more specific? Are the words I selected the very best words for the job? Once you have that sentence, utilize it. This may mean moving it to the top of an email or putting it early in your presentation. It may mean beginning with this main message when asked to speak spontaneously, and then filling in the details. In a few cases, it may mean moving it to the end of your communication, but using clear steps to build towards that point.
SLOW DOWN AND PAUSE. When we get nervous, our words become a speeding freight train with no destination other than the end of the sentence. Unfortunately, this limits how much our audience can absorb. By slowing down our rate of speaking and adding in pauses, we're allowing people to take in what we're saying. We're also signaling that we have the confidence to take up the time we've been given to speak. Practice pausing by counting (to yourself) two claps for a short pause, four claps for a longer pause.
USE STRUCTURE TO SHAPE YOUR CONTENT. If you want to be a confident communicator, clarity is paramount. There are countless structures that can be used to achieve clarity in communication. One of the most useful for those in technical fields is the structure of "Problem, Solution, Result." Summarize all three: the problem you're solving for in your work, the solution that addressed this problem, and your results. You can use this structure to begin a presentation, provide context at the beginning of a meeting, or to answer a question.
Becoming a proficient communicator doesn't happen overnight. It takes effort, time, and practice. However, these skills are tightly tied to your career success. Without clear and engaging communication, the most brilliant ideas are at best delayed from discovery, or at worst, lost in the shuffle. Those who spend time honing these skills will reap the benefits of a committed and appreciative audience.
Christine Haas has over ten years of experience working at the intersection of communication and science. Since founding Christine Haas Consulting, LLC in 2012, Haas has traveled the world teaching courses to clients in industry, government, and academia on presentation skills, storytelling, slide design, and technical writing.
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