With this article, a good dictionary, and a thesaurus, you’ll have no need for fancy software, expensive tablet computers, or lengthy grammar books. The key to speaking better is simplicity. Far too many people buy a deluge of books, podcasts, and software on a topic without making any headway. Start simply and you’ll be ahead of the curve.
Organise your thoughts (the paragraph system)
Have you ever had to listen to a disjointed story? Perhaps the storyteller was confused about what he or she was trying to say. The result is often that the audience will be left as confused as the storyteller.
How can you ensure that the recipient of your information understands it? You must place your message in a useful order. First, you should tell the listener the idea of your message. In other words, in one clear sentence, outline what your story is about.
The sentences that follow must consist of the details behind the idea. By details, we are talking about the background: the history, who is involved, and any other important information.
As an example, imagine you are telling someone about a movie:
- I saw a great movie last night.
The sentences that follow should give additional details:
- The acting was excellent, and the music was beautiful.
This is the way a good paragraph of writing is constructed. The main idea is presented in the first sentence, and the sentences that follow convey more information.
Use this simple paragraph system in your speaking, and your communication skills will improve overnight. Give your idea first, then the details, and your audience will never be confused as to what you are talking about.
To further illustrate this point, imagine that someone has told you about an accident. If the message was organised in the following way, it would be very confusing:
- The police have been called. I think he’s a friend of Vera’s. An ambulance is coming, but everyone thinks he’s already dead. A man has been knocked over by a van. There’s been a terrible accident.
Try reading the above message out loud, then place it in its correct order and read it aloud again. You should come to a speedy conclusion as to why it is essential to organise your thoughts.
Ten words or less (shorten your sentences)
One of the most important English tests is the globally recognised IELTS test. It is not an easy exam, and its reputation makes it an excellent addition to the resumés of non-native English speakers.
In one section of the test, candidates are asked to compose a piece of writing in no more than one hundred and fifty words. The time allocated for this task is twenty minutes.
It may sound like an easy test, and many people would be tempted to complete the task with one hundred and fifty words of blather. However, the test is designed to check the candidate’s ability to write sentences that are clear and concise.
The key to making any sentence clear is to keep it short. This may not always be possible, but sentences that are less than ten words are very clear.
Applying this method to speaking may sound difficult, but with practice it can become second nature. I would suggest that you re-read the paragraph section of this article. Consider carefully how the idea of what you are talking about can be reduced to ten words. Then continue this idea with the details, and try to keep those sentences short as well.
Using long sentences when speaking can also undermine the listener’s confidence in you. Most people are looking for as direct an answer as they can get. When asking, “Can my car be fixed?”, it would be refreshing to hear an answer beginning with a simple “Yes” or “No.” However, when a straight answer is buried in details and lengthy sentences, the listener is likely to feel uncomfortable and frustrated.
Tell them what you’re thinking
When I taught English to Japanese students, nothing was more confusing than when they thought about what they were going to say. I would ask them a question, and they would calmly stare at me with a slight smile on their lips.
When I first began teaching, I assumed that they could not understand my questions, or they were too polite to refuse to answer.
What I would later discover is that in Japan such behaviour is common. For the ill-educated westerner, receiving no indication that who you are talking to is thinking of an answer can be mistaken for other reactions. “Europeans don’t seem to want to talk to me,” one Japanese student said to me. The reality was that his long thinking pauses had been misunderstood as confusion, or of not wanting to talk.
Taking your time to respond to a question is not a crime, but you should leave your audience with no doubt that you have understood what they have asked.
Try not to stare back at the other person, particularly with a look of bewilderment on your face. Certainly, take time to think of a sensible and logical response, but let them know you are doing so.
What I would suggest is to use a little flattery. Tell the other person that their question is interesting and that you will need some time to think of an answer. If in doubt, try using some of the following examples:
- That’s an interesting question; let me think about it for a moment.
- Good point, that’s not an easy question to answer….
- You’ve made an interesting comment; please give me a moment to respond.
The conjunction pause
A great and charismatic speaker always takes a pause. He or she will hold the audience in the palm of their hand with a well placed pause. Where should one stop to pause when speaking?
The best and only place to pause is after a conjunction. With the word conjunction, we are talking about words which are often used to join two sentences together: because, and, or, nor, among others.
Pausing after a conjunction is perfect because it not only creates suspense, but it is clear to the audience that you have not finished speaking.
As an example, consider the following two sentences:
- This is a great product because it is small (pause) and light.
Now for the second sentence:
- This is a great product because (pause) it is small and light.
In the above examples, we can see that the first sentence could cause confusion. Pausing after the word small would give the audience the impression that you had finished speaking.
However, in the second sentence, taking a pause after the conjunction because indicates clearly to the audience that more information is to come.
Pausing after a conjunction not only helps create suspense, but can also be used to give you some time to organise your next sentence so that it is clear and concise.
Fill those lungs (take a breath)
Radio news readers are adept at conveying large amounts of information in increasingly small amounts of time. Think about how a main news story is converted into thirty seconds of radio time. The writing is certainly skillful, but the speed with which the story is read is also quite remarkable.
As a test, try reading a newspaper story aloud, but do not take a breath. Notice that as you read the story your voice becomes thinner, weaker, and less distinct.
How do news readers speak so fast, so clearly, and with seemingly so little effort? The answer is that they take quick, sharp, and deep breaths.
The next time you listen to the news on BBC radio, turn it up and listen to the news reader take a sharp, deep intake of breath to fill their lungs.
This is what you must learn to do. You should know when to take a deep breath, as this will give your lungs more air and your voice far more power. The best places to squeeze in a breath are after a comma or a full stop.
Slow down (enunciate)
To a non-native speaker of English, American action movies are very difficult to understand. The quickly spoken dialogue, much of it slang, is often unclear. When English is spoken too fast, ten words can easily blend together to become one word.
To be fair to Hollywood, you can understand why many DVDs come with subtitles. You should also look at the flip side of the coin: would most western audiences understand action films in Mandarin?
The answer to that question is of course “No,” but I am mentioning action movies to illustrate a point of how you can make your speaking more effective.
The first thing to do is to speak more slowly and pronounce each word individually. You should aim to make every word as clear as possible. The best form of practice is to read aloud and record your voice while doing so.
I would suggest keeping your very first recordings so that you can compare it to later recordings and see how you’ve improved.
You should also listen to the speeches of presidents and prime ministers. They know that their speeches will be heard by people from all walks of life. For that reason, their speech is slow and clear, and they even repeat key words to make their message understandable.
Reviewing grammar (the quick and cheap way)
All too often, people who want to improve their grammar are discouraged. The ominous sight of a hefty grammar book often indicates that its innards are filled with overly technical contents.
Before buying a heavy book on grammar, consider investing in a good dictionary and thesaurus. Most people are unaware that their dictionary contains a plethora of useful extras.
A good dictionary will explain nouns, verbs, formal and informal language, in addition to the origins of words. If you already have a dictionary, then take the time to study the very beginning and end pages. You may be surprised at the simple but informative knowledge that has been included.
Please be sure to take another look at the details provided for each word. For example, did you know that the word dice is the plural of die? Use your dictionary whenever you write a report, letter, or even an email. Be sure to check that the words you are using actually mean what you think they mean.
A good thesaurus is also an excellent addition to a dictionary. When re-reading your work or considering your speaking, ask yourself if you’re using the same words over and over again.
For instance, consider those two little words you and know that some people insist on using at the end of every sentence:
- This country is out of order, you know.
Try to identify those words that you repeat too often. Perhaps you could try recording your own conversations. Listen to your voice. Which words are you repeating? Identify those words and try opening a thesaurus to find suitable alternative words that you can use.
I would also suggest using a thesaurus to simplify your vocabulary. As Plato once said, you must cater your vocabulary to your audience. If you try to tell your grandmother how good your computer is using complex and technical terms, she will soon become bored and perhaps confused.
It would be better to tell her the computer is very good and describe how much fun the children have using it.
Take pride in your speaking!
As with writing, value your vocal abilities. Work hard to improve your skills, and feel your self confidence increase as you do so.
Nothing is as exciting as holding an audience in the palm of your hand. Whether it is your partner, your colleagues, or a room full of students, speaking effectively will bring delight to those around you.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and I hope you soon find yourself communicating more effectively and with ease.