To Speak Well: Listen, Breathe and Read


If you go to work every day, then you speak for a living. Every person who must greet another in the course of their day whether in person or over the phone is a public speaker and needs to speak well.  Sometimes we don’t think we are. At the same time, the companies or public service entities we work for don’t think so either. Most do not put emphasis on communications skills training. Admittedly some big firms may be exceptions but for the most part, this is true. So if your boss or organization isn’t making this a priority why should you? Because good communications skills make you stand out.

So how to begin:

First, it’s not hard to focus on your speech or speaking. But it does take commitment and, like anything you want to improve, practice. Ahem. Practice. It’s not a bad word. It starts with thinking about how you speak and what you want to accomplish.

Next, listen. Who do you think is a good speaker? Is it a co-worker or boss, a preacher or a public figure? Next time you hear the person you admire speak listen more closely. What is their tone, their vocal variances, their choice of words and repetition? Is this something you can copy? If it’s a public figure or celebrity, find their Ted talk or videos online. If it’s not “speeches” you are interested in, then find interviews with them. Why do they look so comfortable and how do they answer and engage? Make a note and try the same technique.

Third, breathe. Yes, breathe. Breathing was the most important thing I was taught in my first public speaking course and was later stressed by my broadcast trainer, a legend in the television news industry, Lilyan Wilder. Rhythmic breathing is when you breathe in through your nose and fill up your body, not just your lungs. You will feel your belly expand. Then slowly release through your mouth. (If you do yoga or took a pre-birth class, you may have been taught this, too.) If you do this three times you are guaranteed to yawn. It relaxes you. This may help with your speaking anxiety or to slow you down long enough to think about what you want to say before it flies out of your mouth. Breathing this way also relaxes your vocal chords. The chords that make sound work a bit like guitar strings. The more stretched they are, the higher the pitch. The more relaxed they are, the lower and more natural the pitch. So, breathe.

And last (for the purposes of this discussion), read. Beyond a telephone hello, you want your opportunities to speak to be engaging and interesting. If you are well-read or at least broadly read–local, national and world news, lifestyle content, popular novels, history, niche publications (online or print) of interest to you–you will be a better speaker.  Being a curious reader will give you many topics to connect with your listener, show you are a curious person, and expand your vocabulary. Reading will remind you of words you know or may send you to a dictionary looking for meanings of new words, adding depth to your lexicon.

While this is not a how-to guide to practice better speaking, this should get you started. What’s the next step?

For more on speaking well, read: Nuts or Not: Better Speech Will Help You Get Ahead