I recently returned from the tcworld conference in Stuttgart. As always, it was a busy three days of sessions, meetings, networking, and catching up with friends. It was delightful to return to live conferences after the forced three-year break. But the pandemic did more than interrupt our conference schedule – it led to a noticeable decline in communication skills!
The global imperative
Most of us work with teams from different backgrounds, nationalities, and with different mother-tongue languages. Clear verbal communication should be as important to us as clearly written content. We need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively in meetings, discussions, and conference presentations.
Unfortunately, many companies emphasize user-facing writing skills and ignore the complexity of the spoken word. This leads to sloppy verbal communication, both inside our organization and outside (to customers or external colleagues).
Let’s look at the problem and what we can do about it.
The rapid racer
I sat through several presentations in which the speaker seemed to want to break a speed record. The problem is that most people process non-native languages more slowly than their native (mother-tongue) language. For example, many attendees at tcworld have extremely high-level English skills. But even with a rich vocabulary, solid grammar knowledge, and comfortable verbal fluency, the non-native speaker needs that extra beat to comfortably process spoken language.
What you can do: Slow down just a little bit. I don’t mean that you need to sound like a drugged sloth; a mere 10 percent slower than your fast normal is sufficient. What is fast normal? Think of how you speak to a good friend who shares the same mother-tongue language as you. It involves fluid transitions and a quick pace, which is too fast for a business conversation with a global audience. Further, add pauses between sentences to allow the listener to fully digest and process what you are saying. Remember that when the audience cannot process what you are saying quickly enough, they mentally disconnect and stop paying attention.
The sloppy slurrer
A native speaker can slur words, swallow syllables, or even elide several words together. If you listen to speakers from the deep south of the United States, a “would you like another cup of coffee?” becomes slurred into “mmmmmmm kawwfee?” It can be stressful for non-native speakers who are not used to that incomprehensible accent.
But equally bad slurring often occurs when non-native speakers lack confidence in the pronunciation of a word. This usually manifests as incorrect vowel sounds. For the native speaker listening, the challenge is significant, as our brain attempts to logically parse the language. One of two things can happen: First, the unsure speaker may create a “waffle” pronunciation that is not any real word. Consider lift, left, loft, and laughed (all sound remarkably similar). If the speaker waffles and says “luft,” we can still use context to decode the meaning.
But the second condition is more stressful and challenging to the native speaker. That is when the unsure speaker gets the vowel wrong, but it is still a word, and in the same part of speech as the intended word. Take the example of “school” instead of “skull”. To the native-speaker listening, “We know people have lived here for over 4000 years because we found a school” makes sense. However, when three sentences later the speaker talks about finding “other bones,” we must now backtrack and try to comprehend everything in a new context.
What you can do: If you are a native speaker, enunciate clearly. Open your mouth. Practice being clear and crisp. If you are a non-native speaker, make sure that you are hitting the correct vowel sounds. When in doubt, listen to specific words, or have a native speaker confirm the pronunciation.
The silly stresser
English has many words that can only be correctly decoded based on the stressed syllable. For example, “present” (noun) and “present” (verb) have stresses on their first and second syllables, respectively. When native speakers get the stress wrong, they sound uneducated and foolish. When non-native speakers get it wrong, the native speaker hears a real word that is out of place and sometimes nonsensical.
What you can do: If you are a non-native speaker, you may have a rich vocabulary from reading, but be unaware of the distinction in syllable stress based on the word’s part of speech. There are also many heteronyms in English (words written the same way but carrying different meanings and pronunciations). Consider “bow”, “wound”, “live”, and many more. One of the best techniques is listening to native speakers who have clear pronunciation.
The unprepared presenter
While tcworld doesn’t use translation services, some conferences do. Unprepared speakers can make the job of the simultaneous interpreter unnecessarily difficult, and thus fail to connect with part of the audience. In cases where you have a mixed audience (some listening to you in the language you are speaking, and some listening over headsets to the simultaneous interpreter), it is very easy to fall into the trap of ignoring part of the audience. You can see this when the headset users appear confused or react to something a few beats later.
What you can do: Give your slides to the interpreter in advance. Tell them a little about the presentation and review any terminology that may be new to them, as well as terms you do not want translated (most often product names, tech terms, or standards). When you speak, make a point of slowing down and adding breathing space between sentences. Keep an eye on those attendees who are using headsets to gauge whether they are responding appropriately without a significant lag. When you get this right, the presentation content will be so seamless that headset users may forget that you don’t speak their language!
The clumsy conversationalist
Different cultures have different rules about what constitutes polite behavior. However, there are some universally accepted guidelines for professional behavior at meetings and conferences. The pandemic has led to confusion and self-doubt about greetings. Do we shake hands? That once ubiquitous gesture now seems uncomfortable because of our increased awareness of hygiene. And cheek kisses? Definitely not!
What you can do: Keep your hands to yourself and just smile. A little head bob of acknowledgment seems to be replacing those germy handshakes. As for conversations, face the person directly. Make sure to not let your voice drop inaudibly. Don’t turn your head while speaking. Make eye contact. Simply be aware of how difficult it can be to decode speech in a noisy environment.
One of the reasons I prefer technical communicator to technical writer is that we do need to communicate in many forms, not just in writing. So, practice your verbal communication skills and be aware of the global communication challenges we face.
Do you have a great example of clear verbal communication to share? Let us know!