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Talking That Gets Heard

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When we speak to other people who know our language, we assume they hear what we are saying. But often, our words are communicating one thing and our facial expressions or gestures are communicating another; or perhaps the listener has heard those words before in a different context and is applying past experience to the present situation. Anything can interfere, including a false assumption by either party that accurate communication has actually occurred.

So how do you avoid the pitfalls of face-to-face communication?

Organize Your Thoughts

As any teacher knows, audiences find it easier to follow information that moves from the simple to the complex or from the general to the specific. If you start to ramble—jump around to different topics—you will lose your audience. If you neglect to consider the least knowledgeable person—for example, if you fill your speech with acronyms that only a long-term employee would recognize—you will lose your audience. Achieving clear, concise, consistent, and compelling speech that is grammatically correct is just as important in face-to-face communication as in writing.

Watch Your Words and Tone

Certain words have meanings that go beyond the word itself. “I want you to…” is a much stronger statement than “I would appreciate it if…” or “you might find it helpful if….” If your audience reacts in a way you do not understand, the chances are that you have used words that generate the wrong emotional impact—whatever you intent, the audience heard something else.

Both positive emotions (compassion, joy) and negative emotions (sarcasm, repressed anger) can come through in tone, rather than words, and change how an audience reacts to what you are saying. You must be mindful of your emotions because the audience will pick up on them.

Pay Attention to Facial Expressions and Gestures

Our facial expressions and gestures can either support or contradict our words; they can add meaning (a lifted eyebrow) to or indicate discomfort (a grimace) with the conversation. They also promote mirroring

Say a team member offers a suggestion in meeting and the team leader’s expression is one of disdain for that opinion; in all likelihood, the team will reject that suggestion even if the leader’s spoken response is neutral. On the other hand, if the leader mirrors the posture and expression of the team member, that member and others will likely believe that the leader respects the idea.

Therefore, if you want your audience to react in a certain way, watch not only your own expressions and gestures but those of the audience as well. You may need to adjust your expressions and gestures to get the result you want.


When you audience feels heard, they are more likely to follow your suggestions, advice, or argument. Listening is not passive, but requires active participation and is an essential part of face-to-face communication.

A study reported in Harvard Business Review used a 360 degree assessment to measure the listening skills of 3,492 participants and discover why some people were considered better listeners than others. They found that great listeners ask related and probing questions; are supportive rather than critical; and give appropriate suggestions. Those listeners not only paid attention, but reacted in the spirit of sharing, creating a dialog.

Consider Alternatives

Once you have said your piece, ask a listener to repeat what they heard. Depending on how critical the information is, you may ask for either a summary or a step-by-step recounting. 

If there are any vital differences between what you said and what was heard, you might try:

  • Paraphrasing; that is, repeating the information in different words
  • Showing rather than telling 
  • Diagramming the information or writing it down
  • Explaining the result you want and asking the other person how they would get there.

Video Conferencing

Video allows people to meet face-to-face across vast distances. It is efficient and cost-effective, since it eliminates travel time between locations, and it enables screen sharing, which can boost productivity. But effective communication over a video conference requires some important adjustments:

  • Experiment with different camera positions. Subtle clues may be lost when people are on camera, depending on how the camera is positioned.  
  • Choose a more stationary method of presentation. Moving around is harder and may be more distracting. 
  • Establish protocol. The rules over who is talking and how to interrupt are not as clear in video conferencing and, again, subtle clues may be missed. 
  • Check in often to determine the course of the conversation. People may feel freer to say “no”: walking away from a conversation is easier during a video conference when you can, in effect, just hang up or tune out. 
  • Make sure IT is handy. Technical problems are rampant with video conferencing and largely absent from face-to-face communications.

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