We spend plenty of time thinking about what we say in business, but not necessarily how we say it.
When it comes to professional settings, though, the way we speak — including tone, pitch, and volume — is every bit as important, and dramatically affects how our bosses and colleagues perceive us.
Since it's hard to recognize your own verbal slip ups, we consulted several experts to identify the most problematic speaking mistakes, and how to avoid them.
1. Stuttered or repeated words and fillers
These, uh, filler words are ubiquitous in everyday speech. "Like," "um," "er" and others are used routinely in casual conversations, so often go unnoticed. But they stick out when used in professional settings.
John West, head of the speech division at New York Speech Coaching, refers to words like these as "vocalized pauses." People typically toss these sounds into speech because they fear that allowing for a pause will lose their listeners. On the contrary, West says it's the speakers who use excessive "ums" and "uhs" that tend to lose their audience the fastest, and that a well-placed pause can pique listeners' attention.
2. Speaking too quickly
Rapid speech is a common effect of nerves, and can make the speaker hard to follow. That's especially bad during a presentation, when clarity is extremely important. Susan Finch, a New York City-based voice and speech coach who works with business professionals, says hasty speakers often end up "mumbling, rushing, and swallowing" their words. To address this, she instructs clients to take a breath before they begin speaking. That simple action creates a natural break in speech and helps the person to slow down.
3. Speaking too quietly
Another routine problem for people is learning to project and speak at the correct volume. Sandra Kazan, a New York City-based vocal coach for executives, says someone's ability to project depends on his or her type of voice. For example, high-pitched voices naturally project better and further than lower pitched ones. Still, that has its tradeoffs.
"A nasal voice will carry, will probably not have very much problem projecting, but it is a very annoying voice to listen to for any amount of time," she explains. As with pace, experts say the best fix for volume is to breathe well. Projection problems tend to occur when people tighten up, constricting their vocal chords and preventing a smooth flow of air.
4. Gravelly voice or vocal fry
A growing issue among young women in particular is the effect known as "gravelly voice" or "vocal fry." This occurs when the flow of air in a person's throat becomes interrupted, and sounds in their speech take on a creaky, gravelly quality.
You can hear samples of that speech and a discussion of vocal fry in a podcast on the subject by Slate. As the commentators note, "it's annoying. It's really, really annoying." In linguistics, the effect is commonly referred to as "creaky voice," they add, because it "sounds sort of like a door creaking or a hinge that needs oiling." Vocal fry is best avoided by first realizing when you do it and then taking care to breathe sufficiently before speaking. Coaches say it can be helpful to make a recording of yourself to identify when you're most prone to it.
5. Trailing off at the end of phrases
Ever notice that people get quieter at the end of a sentence? A common speech pattern in our culture is to trail off toward the end of phrases, clauses, and sentences. That means important words can easily get lost or thoughts can feel uncompleted. "You want to keep your voice supported and the thought going all the way to the end of the idea," Finch says.
6. Uptalk, or phrasing statements as questions
Another issue in speech is known as uptalk — ending a statement on an upward pitch so that it sounds like a question even when it's not. Kazan says this issue is more common in women. Finch claims that a particularly common use of uptalk is when people say someone else's name. "Often people will ask it as a question, as though they're not sure," she says. Doing so makes the speaker seem far less confident. Speakers struggling with uptalk should record themselves and then make an effort to keep their pitch from rising at the end of a sentence.
7. Speaking in a monotone voice
Nothing turns an audience off like a boring presenter. That's why vocal coaches say one of the worst speaking mistakes is to use a dull, monotone voice. "We want to hear in the voice a relaxed enthusiasm and a pleasant assertiveness," explains West.
That doesn't mean going over the top with high and low pitches, but rather allowing for some degree of variation in the tone and color of your phrasing. And the easiest way to achieve that effect is to breathe and relax. "If you can speak like George Clooney, it's because you are a relatively laid back person," West says.
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