Career Tools

Communication Patterns that Hold Us Back – Part 1: Verbal

Communication Patterns

The words we say, and how we say them, matter! It is the most immediate reflection on our ability to articulate thoughts and intelligently communicate our expertise.  Even the most well thought out presentation or collaborative idea can be steamrolled by poor delivery.

Moreover, we can develop reputations at the office based on how we present verbally to our colleagues. Here are some common verbal patterns that are stomping on our ability to communicate our brilliance effectively in the workplace.

Verbal Fillers

Remember that annoying communications professor that would dock your grade every time you said “um”, “ah” or “like”? THERE WAS A REASON! They are distracting to the tone of professionalism you are setting.

Verbal fillers are most commonly our brain’s way of filling in what it fears is an awkward pause as thoughts are gathered. They are most noticeable during presentations, interviews, conference calls and public speeches – you know… all those nerve-wrecking moments when your boss is looking at you to sound like the articulate human s/he hired.

On the bright side – everyone has some sort of verbal filler that creeps into their speech. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make it any less distracting once your listeners hear.

Some things to try:

  • Be aware – try recording yourself. I have used the Marco Polo app for years, and recently went back and audited a conversation with my best friend. Even in my most comfortable conversational state, I discovered verbal fillers that crept into my language on a regular basis.
  • Practice Practice Practice! – is this obvious. But the more you know what you are going to say, the less likely you will be to let that unintentional “um” slip into your discourse.
  • Learn to slow down and breathe. Take a moment to mentally plan your statement before you open your mouth. Slow your speech down even further than you think you need to.
  • Silence is golden –Train yourself to close that pie hole when you feel the urge to drop a verbal filler bomb. Remember how much more nervous you became once you got called out by Professor Nit Picky? It’s because you could feel those verbal fillers popping up. Train your mind to replace the filler with a breath or pause.

Vocal Fry

Think Kardashian, or The Simple Life. Vocal Fry is defined as the way of speaking in which the voice is very low-pitched and has a characteristic rough or creaking sound. While it has become synonymous with reality TV, it isn’t always as dramatic as you see on the small screen. Most of us are completely unintentional with vocal fry, because it actually occurs when there is not enough breath being pushed through your vocal chords.

Vocal fry doesn’t play well in the workplace because it is distracting and undermines your message. Studies have shown that vocal fry can make someone come across as anxious or unsure.

Some things to try:

  • Breathe – Focus on taking a deep breath before you start talking. Try blowing all the air out of your lungs and say your address. Now, try taking a deep breath and say it again. Notice the difference?
  • Don’t forget the end of your thought – focus on ending your sentence as strong as you started it. Most vocal fry is not actually present through 100% of your speech, but rather at the end of a sentence when you have run out of breath. Try making your sentences shorter.
  • Intentionally up your pitch – I don’t mean to go full chipmunk here, but actively try to up your octave when you hear the fry sneaking into your conversations.

Here is a quick exercise featured on The Doctors to help take that bacon sizzling effect out of your lingo.

Up Talk

Ever feel unsure if someone asked you a question or made a statement? Up talk is the raised inflection at the end of a thought. If vocal fry is the speech pattern made popular in the 2000s, Up Talk is her big sister that paved the way with the likes of Cher Horowitz in the ‘90s.

Like vocal fry, up talk undermines the message. But instead of sounding anxious, the speaker tends to sound excited, tentative and lacking in focus. It is more common with women; however men are guilty of it as well. A study of Jeopardy contestants showed that 48% of women who responded with correct answers used an up 27% of men with correct answers responded by using an upward inflection inflection

Here is an absolutely amazing piece by the ever amazing Connie Chung that is likely to be the most 90s thing you watch all day.

Some things to try:

  • Find your uptalking patterns – make a note of the topics, audiences and situations that cause your uptalk. Is it in a conference room? Prepared presentation?
  • Practice declarative statements in private – Focus on how your vocal pattern escalates with even the most basic commands. Notice when you repeat the same commands over and over you find inflections in your voice. Over time you will get a sense of how your commanding voice sounds and be able to replace uptalks in your presentations.
  • Develop a sense of certainty – simply framed, focus on owning your statements and the conversations in which you are having them. By believing in what you are saying, you’ll instantly start to deliver with a more confident tone.

Remember that we are all built with vocal predispositions, so do not beat yourself up over a tendency to lean into vocal fillers, up talk and vocal fry. Instead, work to actively improve your speech patterns and you may just find your ideas and contributions being taken more seriously.