Have you heard of the adage that the verbal communication only conveys 7% of the message? The balance, as the oft-cited research concluded, is 55% body language and 38% tone of voice. This alarmed me greatly when I heard it during a master class on communication. As a remote worker, 55% of meaning would be lost in a phone call and 93% would be lost in an email exchange!

The research is from a study on human communication patterns from UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues. They studied a very specific situation, however. Subjects used single words related to their feelings or attitudes, and simultaneously used non-verbal actions incongruent with the word. There are plenty of websites that aim to debunk this research as it is applied to communication in general. If percentages of effectiveness are to be applied to your specific communication situation, whether you’re giving a presentation or conducting a WebEx, they’re sure to be different. Sure, body language and tone of delivery are important, but words matter far more than 7% to the listener.

It is often said that remote workers must be good writers. That’s so true! After all, most of our interactions are virtual. Consider the importance and persistence of written communication: emails, instant messaging, business requirements, Slack updates, wiki pages and texting threads. Surely you’ve been on the receiving end of bad communication. Bad communication likely stems from poorly organized thoughts underlying the wrong words. People will judge you based on the quality of your communication. It may be the thing that prevents you from getting the job you want! If you’re already employed, it may hold you back from other opportunities.

Step 1: Organize your thoughts

When writing something important, make sure that the structure of what you’re communicating is right. If it’s something that’s taken you awhile to conclude on your own, think about all of the data and logic that helped you arrive at that conclusion. Structure your writing with the goal of influencing the reader the same way. You can tell when something has been organized this way: it doesn’t meander; it is well thought out; it carves a neat path from the beginning to the end.

Step 2: Use the right words

Consider your audience when you’re writing. If you’re an academic in a niche field but you’re communicating to outsiders, you must adjust how you’re communicating. As a technologist, I find that my writing can be very technical if I’m writing my peers. When I’m communicating to my manager, I distill it without using too much jargon. Never use more words than needed. If you can say something in five words, why use ten? As a general rule, I write everything down first to get it from my brain onto the screen. Then I go through it and edit ruthlessly, cutting 30-40% of the words to optimize the reading experience.

Step 3: Say them the best way possible

With the written word, steps 1 and 2 are all you get. When you’re going to give a speech or lead a meeting, in person or remote, Step 3 can be the icing on your communication cake. One of the best things my parents did for me was to have me take a few lessons from a public speaking coach. I had won an award where I was expected to give a speech. A few of the takeaways that still resonate with me:

  • Speak Slowly Speak more slowly than you think you should. I’m a fast talker, so this one was difficult!
  • Ditch the Monotone Vary your tone and cadence to match what you’re saying. Nobody likes a monotone delivery. You're acting, in a way, so make it interesting!
  • Look 'em in the Eye Make eye contact with your audience. It helps to engage them and bring them into what you're saying. I look ahead in my notes for what’s coming, then look up and deliver the next few sentences. I rarely look directly at people, opting instead for looking just above their heads, usually at predetermined spots on the back wall. They can’t tell the difference!
  • Move Around If you can, move. I love it when people on stage walk as they talk, using body language to help express their words. Seeing presenters stuck behind a lectern, especially for long stretches, can be rather frustrating. Some of my best phone calls are when I’m walking around the room, headset on, being a full participant in the call.
  • Smile!

The things I learned from my public speaking coach applied not only to that awards ceremony, but to anytime I’m speaking: one-on-one with a friend or colleague, to a group of people at church, during a meeting on the phone, or behind a podium on a stage. I highly recommend a public speaking course, regardless of your role., an online learning library I subscribe to, has several public speaking courses.

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