Articles > It's not just what you say, it's how you say it

It's not just what you say, it's how you say it
Globe & Mail, December 02, 2009

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Someone recently sent me an e-mail about some work she had done. At least I think that was what it was about.

With seven acronyms in a couple of paragraphs, it had as much meaning as alphabet soup. She wrapped up by saying that I looked familiar, and asked if I had met her (at another acronym conference).

I frequently receive such incomprehensible notes. I always wonder if the senders have any idea of how ridiculous they sound, and how their communication style seriously undermines how they are seen by others.

Some reflect underlying personality deficiencies, such as narcissism, arrogance, insecurity or laziness. Others are simply irritating quirks. Regardless, they all interfere with an individual's communication effectiveness.

Whether written or oral, here are some of the more egregious types of communication sins. If you see yourself committing them, consider the suggestions for changing how you communicate.

Narcissism

Narcissistic communicators not only see everything from their own point of view, they believe that everything about that point of view and who they are is endlessly fascinating.

The main function of an audience is to mirror how great the narcissist is.
This is the office bore who, when telling a story to co-workers, thinks that 20 years of week-by-week background is necessary to really understand what he or she is are saying.

Or the egomaniac, who relays, word for word, an entire conversation and then repeats all the clever things he or she said.

Or the people who think they are so endlessly fascinating that you must remember them after meeting them at a conference 15 years before.

Narcissists rarely see themselves. But if you can, take note: What enthralls you - you - is not particularly enthralling to others. Unless you are one of the rare charming raconteurs, stories about how accomplished and admired you are can be terminally boring.

Give your co-workers some breathing room. Ask something about them. And get to the point quickly.

Arrogance

Arrogant communicators see interpersonal interactions as a kind of competitive sport. The winner? The person who inflates his or her own ego by diminishing that of others.

They usually keep their cards close to the chest, waiting for you to make an idiot of yourself. For example, when you offer an opinion, the person says, in a voice dripping with patronizing indulgence, "That's an interesting point of view." What you hear: "That's the most incredibly stupid thing anyone has ever said."

Sometimes the psychological underpinning of arrogant communication is arrogance. But sometimes it is actually shyness.

If you think people experience you as arrogant, and you don't actually believe yourself to be superior but are simply socially awkward, soften how people see you.

Compliment co-workers. Ask them questions about their work. Act like what they say is important.

Status seekers

They come in a variety: Name droppers need to be seen as a Very Important Person by their association with Very Important People. Achievement droppers like to tell you who they are by a list of all their recent accomplishments, quantified: "My unit increased profitability 500 per cent last quarter." Or "my stock portfolio soared 1,000 per cent."

Both are insecure - name-droppers searching are for cachet by association; achievement-droppers want recognition of their competence. Unfortunately, both do the opposite of what they intended: They don't impress.

Rather than assume people care about who you know or your business coups, share something about you are, or an interesting life experience. Make a connection.

Jargon addiction

The people who pepper all conversation with professional terminology also typically have many insecurities.

They are really saying, "Look at how smart I am." Or, "Look at what exclusive club I belong to that you don't."

The alienating language usually backfires. Rather than thinking, "My, how clever you are because you use five-syllable words rarely spoken in everyday English," I always think, "If you were really clever, you would be able to translate this professional concept into words my mother would have understood."

Simplify your language and your audience may understand you better, and be more interested in what you have to say.

Adjective impairment

One of my clients was delighted when the shy staff member she had coached delivered a highly poised presentation.

Unfortunately, my client didn't relay her delight in a very motivating way: Instead of saying how great it was, she merely said it was fine.

The adjective-deprived use language so flat and matter-of- fact that you have little idea what the communicator really thinks about something. And such neutral language is not very inspiring.

On the flipside are those who go too far, describing everything as cool, fabulous, awesome or amazing - discounting the value of anything that really is worthy of that description.

Adjective deprivation is easy to fix: Use fulsome words, and give emotive feedback.

To remedy adjective overuse, be selective in what you describe as being awesome, and use adjectives appropriate to the situation. Not everything requires a modifier.

Soft speaking

Whether, as some psychologists suggest, speaking in a quiet voice is a sign that someone is manipulative and trying to get more power in a conversation, or simply that the communicator has weak vocal chords, the effect is the same: The listener will stop listening or trying to understand.

Raise your voice if you are constantly being asked to repeat yourself or see that your listener practically has his or her ear on your lips.

Speaking verrry slooowly

These people, most often older workers, talk very deliberately. The problem is that by the time they get to the point, their audience has often drifted off.

Do people sometimes finish your sentences for you? When you look at someone you are talking to, are his or her eyes glazed over?

If you answered yes, you may need to speed it up if you want your audience to hear what you have to say.

Missing the point

My friends say the worst insult I can level is to describe someone as "concrete." Here's an example. You lead into a brilliant solution you've come up with by way of a brief anecdote about bumping into someone in the hall. When you are finished your clever analysis, your listener asks: "Where in the hall did you bump into her?"

If you absolutely must ask a question that shows you completely missed the point, take a lesson from my husband who, after many years of training, has finally learned to acknowledge when he focuses on the tangential instead of the gist.

Banality

Whenever I get together with one acquaintance, he peppers me with banal questions, such as which hotel chain I prefer to stay in or on what floor.

He's not interested in the answers - and why should he be? He's just trying to make a connection, but I always feel he's taken one Dale Carnegie course too many.

The key to making a connection is to be genuine. Ask an interesting question. If you don't have one, try silence.