One of the greatest hallmarks of the human species is our ability to use language.
Most other animals do have the ability to be communicate, mind you, some at very high levels. Bees, for instance, use dances to convey staggering specificity regarding locations, ants use pheromone trails, and dolphins use dozens of distinct calls and may even have names for one another.
Nevertheless, none of them uses language, which is defined by Merriam Webster as “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.” Dictionary.com defines language as “a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.”
As you can see, systems are heavily involved in language, and that is the difference between humanity and the animal kingdom. Knowing the rules that govern word use, sentences, paragraphs and style is paramount. Moreover, employing them aloud is what marks you as a good communicator.
Of course, not everyone starts out with an innate ability to use language well, which is why you should make the effort to improve those oral communication skills intentionally. Here are 10 tips to help you do so.
1. Read, Read, Read
Although the written and spoken word often do not use the same conventions, and writing is often more formal than speech, the two share much in common. The foundation of good oral communication is understanding the meaning of words, forming intelligible and interesting sentences and knitting ideas together seamlessly. Text is an excellent place to start, as it does all three. So read, read, read! And note that you do not have to read dry academic texts or boring writing manuals, either; novels, histories and essays will do just as nicely.
2. …Then Read Out Loud
Once you build a solid reading habit, start reading aloud. You will quickly notice patterns in your own voice that disrupt the flow of oral communication. This might include taking breaths at the wrong time, stumbling over more complex words or missing the cadence (the flow of sound) of a sentence. When you hear with your ears as opposed to in your mind, you can correct such errors much more easily.
3. Watch Intelligent Films
Watching movies also helps, especially if you are an English language learner – but even if you aren’t. Hearing speech by people trained to do it well is very illuminating, and can help your brain rewire itself to copy them. However, keep in mind that Marvel action flicks do not count. Apart from some witty asides (looking at you, Iron Man), such films mostly oriented around fighting, panicking, breaking things, etc. Instead, opt for smart movies, such as legal dramas, classic works or highbrow romances.
4. Listen to Excellent Communicators
The world abounds with great communicators, and you should absolutely make use of them. Think professors, TED Talk speakers, great podcasters or radio stars. Listen not only for the ideas, but for the conventions and idiosyncrasies that make for such great listening experiences. How do people phrase their points? What tricks do they use to draw you in, fascinate you or make you think? What would you like to emulate?
5. Take a Class
If your oral communication skills aren’t to the point where you want to begin practicing with others, that’s okay. Sometimes you need to build confidence first, and an excellent way to do that is to take a class. In classes, everyone is on the same footing, so you don’t need to worry about not being able to keep up. Just follow along and do your best, then take the next class in the series if needed.
6. Practice Speaking
Especially if English is your second language, you’ll need lots of practice speaking words out loud in order to get proficient. While it’s okay to practice on your own, you will need to speak to other people to get the real-world practice you need to become fluent. Try taking a conversation class, as mentioned above, or meeting with a group of other language learners to practice regularly.
If you’re already fluent in English, great! But you still need practice speaking comfortably with others in order to demonstrate consistently effective oral communication. You too can improve by participating in a debating community to increase your skills, or attending a book club to engage with others on a spoken level.
7. Don’t Mumble!
Sometimes good communication is as simple as making sure the other person can hear you! If you mumble, however, you don’t give them the chance. While nerves often cause us to dip our heads and pipe down, avoid the temptation. You’ll do better if you can keep your chin up and your voice bright.
8. Adopt a “Winning” Pose
Power poses are totally a thing these days. They’re easy to put to use right away, too. Simply stand in a “victory” position, upright, legs spread, arms in the air and head back. This signals to your brain that you’re successful, on top … that you got this. Power poses give you more confidence, and will help you speak with more courage and assurance.
9. Express What You’re Really Thinking
One of the biggest mistakes in oral communication is to dissemble, or try to hide what you’re really thinking or feeling. While you might “get away” with the deception, you won’t be able to hide the natural human discomfort that comes with being less than truthful. When speaking – whether just to a friend or to an auditorium of a hundred people – be truthful, and stand up for what you believe. It’s much more appealing.
It seems silly, but it isn’t. When you smile, your words come across more naturally, and people are more inclined to like you. That’s what you want: people leaning into your words, engaged with who you are and waiting for more. While smiling may feel unnatural at first, you’ll get the hang of it eventually. No need to do so all the time, either; it would be strange to smile while reporting a devastating tragedy or debating a contentious point. But use your grin liberally, and you’ll see your skills and your bond with listeners improve accordingly.
Of course, knowing and doing are two separate things. Now that you have these ideas, it’s time to go put them to use for you. Since most people have the opportunity to speak to other humans every day, this shouldn’t be too hard. Just take your chances as they come, and you’ll see the results you’re looking for.