How to Speak So Others Listen

Susan Fee, MEd

When you speak, do people listen? More importantly, do they remember what you’ve said? Or, do you feel others simply tolerate or ignore you? If you’ve found yourself repeating messages or fighting to keep someone’s attention, you’re not alone! Your message has to cut through a lot of noise in today’s society, and the competition is brutal. You’re up against stress, technology, multitasking, and information overload. While it’s a challenge to be heard over the roar, it’s not impossible.

The first step is to become aware of what grabs and keeps your attention. Your own habits provide the perfect study lab to learn how to communicate more effectively. What do you remember from today, yesterday, or last week? What if you go all the way back to your childhood — what do you recall? What you’ll quickly realize is that your brain doesn’t latch on to events, people, or conversations that are boring. For something to stick, it has to be interesting.

But that’s not all it takes. For your message to be memorable, it must make an emotional connection. No one understands this better than the world of advertising. Before you balk at the suggestion of having to sell your message, note that if you don’t, you’re choosing to be overlooked. If you believe what you have to say is beneficial and important, then there’s no shame in understanding how to get through to others. An effective commercial educates, entertains, provokes thought, and inspires action. Wouldn’t you like to do the same?

Let’s start by assessing your current impact. Answer the following true or false:

  • People often interrupt or talk over me.
  • Other people receive credit for my ideas.
  • People forget their previous conversations with me.
  • I have difficulty getting return phone calls, texts, and e-mails.
  • Others don’t notice my absence from meetings or social gatherings.
  • People often don’t understand what I’m trying to say the first time.
  • I constantly have to repeat myself.
  • Others rush to end their conversations with me.

If you answered true to any of these, remember, we live in a distracted society, so it’s hard to cut through. A well-crafted message has four elements that will be discussed in this article as the Four Cs: connect, concise, compelling, and commanding. Communicating effectively benefits everyone! Misunderstandings decrease along with the potential for bruised feelings. Meanwhile, getting heard the first time you speak saves valuable time and energy. It’s worth the effort to learn how to speak so others listen.

The Four Cs

1. Connect

It’s been said the longest journey one must travel is the eighteen inches between your head and your heart. So often in communication, people think they need to prove themselves upfront so as not to appear stupid. They spout facts and opinions in an effort to impress others and garner respect. Unfortunately, it does the opposite. Delivering content without first having a connection gives the impression of being a know-it-all who’s desperate for approval. Rather than drawing people closer, it pushes them away. That’s because the only way to the head is through the heart.

Just like an electrical plug must be inserted into an outlet before the current can flow, you need to make an emotional connection before delivering content. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to share personal details while hugging or crying! Instead, think of it as developing rapport and being relatable and likeable. Caution: If you find yourself objecting to “wasting time” by being “fake nice,” you’re missing the point entirely. Connection is only possible when you’re authentic, with no false pretenses.

What makes people likeable? In general, being friendly, respectful, humble, authentic, funny, and considerate are all good qualities. When you’re comfortable with yourself, it puts others at ease. You also must convey credibility, but in a way that isn’t confused with arrogance. Sharing what you know from personal experience is very different from lecturing others with facts. Most people feel comfortable around others with whom they can relate, and that’s done on an emotional level, not a factual one. Connection doesn’t take hours or even a lot of effort. It’s just taking the time initially to slow down, breath, relax, and fully acknowledge the person before going further.

2. Concise

In 1956, Princeton psychologist George Miller published a paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” in which he noted that working memory only has the capacity to hold limited amounts of information at any one time. Miller wrote that the typical person retains seven units of information, plus or minus two. Current research suggests a more realistic number is about four (Jacobson, 2013). Therefore, for you to be heard, the listener must forget something else. Capturing someone’s attention literally means overtaking one of seven rungs on the ladder of his short-term memory. And, once you get there, you have to fight to keep your place.

Since short-term memory is the gatekeeper to long-term memory, it’s worth the effort to figure out how to make your message stand out. First, if the average recall of information is only seven items, your main point should never be more than seven words. If you can’t say it in seven words or less, neither can the other person. That’s not to say you have to limit yourself to one, short sentence, but once your conversation is over, what do you want the other person to repeat about it?

Twitter users have learned to edit messages down to the bare bones, but in person, it’s easier to ramble. Edit your main point to the most interesting, pertinent information before speaking, and you’ll stand a much better chance of grabbing attention.

3. Compelling

Nothing is more interesting than a good story. Cultivating stories takes practice, but examples can be found everywhere. Every good story has certain elements. First, you need a dilemma to overcome that hooks people emotionally. Think of a problem you had to solve, or challenging circumstances you had to work through. A listener’s automatic reaction is to wonder how he would respond in your situation, making him pay all the more attention.

If there are other people in your story, make them come alive with details so that listeners can picture them. If you’re the only character, speak as you did when the story happened rather than as an observer after the fact. The most engaging storytellers aren’t afraid to act it out as if it’s happening in the moment. This key element draws people in because it feels like you’re there as it’s unfolding, just like a good movie. There’s a big emotional difference between talking about something from a distance and being in the middle of it.

Personal stories can appear self-centered if they’re just about you. The goal is to have your story share a lesson or message that applies to your audience. The more universal the message, the better the story. Start becoming aware of experiences that could turn into good stories, even writing them down. You’ll also need to practice telling long and short versions of each tale so you’re prepared depending on the situation.

4. Command

Commanding attention is very different from demanding it. To command the attention of others means to exude a presence that’s impossible to ignore. People pay attention to you by choice, not out of fear or requirement. Therefore, a commanding presence and delivery style is assertive, not aggressive.

There are four communication styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, and assertive. When behaving passively, you stifle your feelings and opinions to please others. If disrespected, you remain silent to avoid conflict. Passive body language and vocal delivery appears meek and you may feel invisible. Rather than commanding attention, you’re overlooked.

Aggressive behavior is self-serving and controlling. Tactics include yelling, name calling, sarcasm, and intimidating body language. Passive-aggressive behavior is when someone appears friendly to your face and then attacks you behind your back, or uses the silent treatment to manipulate. Both of these styles may gain attention in the moment, but it’s for the wrong reasons and short-lived. That’s why the tactics need to be employed with increasing intensity just to feel someone is listening.

Assertive behavior honors your rights and the rights of others. This means sharing your feelings without attacking others for theirs. Assertive body language appears confident and comfortable, using direct eye contact and a firm voice. You can be quietly assertive too. Not everyone who commands attention does so by being loud.

Your inner dialogue guides your behavior. Therefore, the first step in speaking more assertively is eliminating passive thoughts. Here are four examples of self-talk that need editing: I want to be nice to everyone; I want people to like me; I don’t want to make anyone mad; and I hate conflict. Replace these passive thoughts with more assertive thoughts, such as: I want to show respect to everyone; I want people to respect me; the only feelings I control are my own; and it’s okay for people to have differing viewpoints. Changing the way you talk to yourself will influence the way you speak to others.

If you want others to listen to what you have to say, you have to believe that you have something worthwhile to share. Notice times when you successfully grab attention and instances when you feel ignored. Which of the Four Cs (connect, concise, compelling, command) are you already using, and which ones need more practice? A combination of all four will be the magic formula to effectively communicate your message.

Additional Resources

101 Ideas & Insights About Resolving Conflict, Book, Susan Fee, www.ACAbookstore.org

People Pleasing: The Silent Killer, DVD, Susan Fee, www.ACAbookstore.org

Making Your Message Stick, DVD, Susan Fee, www.ACAbookstore.org

How to Speak So Others Listen, free audio and workbook download, Susan Fee, www.susanfee.com

Brain Rules, Book, John Medina

Talk Less, Say More: Three Habits to Influence Others and Make Things Happen, Book, Connie Dieken

 

References

Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review, 63.

Jacobson, R. (2013 September 9). Seven isn’t the magic number for short-term memory. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2013/09/10/science/seven-isnt-the-magic-number-for-short-termmemory.html?_r=0

Susan Fee is a clinical counselor, national trainer, and author of 101 Ideas & Insights About Resolving Conflict, available from the ACA Bookstore (www.ACAbookstore.org). She has been presenting workshops and online training for ACA since 2007. Learn more by visiting www.susanfee.com.

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