Practice saying “Hi.” We’ll start small, two little letters, one short syllable, almost nothing but an exhalation.
How many times has that simple, tiny word clogged throats of a million sizes?
Yet it’s the cornerstone of nearly every attempt humans make to reach out to one another, crucial to our love lives, politics, jobs, family harmony, friendships, comrades-in-arms, even frenemies.
“Hi.” Some of us find it so hard to say that word clearly, distinctly, and with a force of personality so undeniable the word becomes a complete data summation of us ready for full and immediate download into the permanent reaches of another person’s core processor.
We find it difficult for a number of reasons. Perhaps our self-confidence is low. Maybe we’re reluctant to interrupt. Or we’re so self-effacing we’re self-erasing.
You and I are going to deal with that right here, right now. We’re going to say hi to people and they’re going to know they’ve been said hi to, by gosh, or we might as well pack this interpersonal relations thing up and go home!
1. Ride The Mechanical Bull
Speaking is a mental and physical balancing act.
There are a number of variables being coordinated at the same time, from temperature (we speak faster when we’re very cold), to our general health, to the way we breathe, and even our own natural mind-to-speech rhythms (which vary widely per individual).
We can speak more clearly and with greater impact if we’re mindful of these variables and use them to our conscious advantage.
Breathing is key. When words are blocked or flustered, there’s an inclination to blurt them out as though speed will solve the problem. Instead, take a moment, take a breath… then speak as though assured of the other person’s patience.
In conversation, it’s OK to wait (and have other people wait) for words.
Speech therapists recommend practicing diaphragmatic breathing, which helps us (a) become aware of how to breathe down to our diaphragm, (b) breathe out before we begin speaking, then (c) inhale gently through our nose and exhale slowly through the mouth to establish a rhythm between brain, mouth, and environment.
We’ll also want to vary our talking speed and inflection.
Some of us speak slowly, which in itself isn’t a bad thing, but we have to be able to “read the room,” so to speak.
If our audience’s attention is wandering, it may have less to do with interest in what we’re saying and more to do with the fact that they’ve already reached the end of the conversation and are waiting for us to catch up.
Those who speak too quickly, on the other hand, tend to lose the audience before we even begin.
Pair unvaried speed with unvaried tone, and we’ve the perfect storm of communicative fog.
Keep in mind that, most of the time, we don’t speak clearly because we’ve already told ourselves no one’s likely to listen anyway. Well, that fog doesn’t help.
A monotone demands to be goosed, vocal fry is hell on Earth, high-pitched squeaking is fit only for cartoon mice, and being shouty guarantees people immediately closing their ears.
Change things up. Listen to audiobooks for examples. Watch videos of dramatists and orators for pointers. It doesn’t take huge shifts in personality to bring about subtle, but important changes in tone and delivery.
The more we identify our own particular mechanics of speech, the less the tendency to be paralyzed by the fear of being thrown off our expected verbal bulls.
When speaking, our minds are often going in twenty directions at once. Do we look disheveled? Do we stink? Does the other person stink, and how should we best ignore that? Are we sexually attracted to that person? Could they be attracted to us? What day is it? Will they know we loved Twilight more than we’ve ever admitted?
Too often, we’re not speaking to someone, we’re having an internal monologue that produces a few grunts and mumbles that the other person is left to decipher.
Rather than weigh every response we might have to someone, try focusing on the person. See them. Hear them, and not merely hear, but listen.
How often is the reason for us not knowing what to say (and thus muffling our responses) simply because we’re too busy doubting ourselves to pay attention?
Focus on the other person’s mood; mood is a great translator of words. Focus on the context of the encounter: are we in a casual or formal situation? Business or pleasure?
This will let our brains know which shelves to pull words and phrases from, rather than haphazardly and awkwardly flinging things outward hoping the other person will make sense of us.
When we focus on the conversation and less on how we imagine we’re perceived, we automatically lessen the stresses that suppress confidence.
3. Center Ourselves
Centering, in this context, means seeing ourselves as the gravitational center of a conversational solar system. Essentially, we’re the star.
This is a bit of an ego thing, but a necessary one if we’re naturally inclined to muzzle ourselves, and it is not to be taken too far. There’s a difference between centering and being a blowhard.
It’s about identity. Knowing who we are as we relate to others (and realizing that even confident people unconsciously play the same game of ego hug) produces a comfort level for all involved.
Think of someone we’ve admired for their ability to talk to anyone in any situation. Isn’t our estimation of that person generally, ‘Gee, they’re really together!’ not ‘My gawd, what a narcissistic prat!’
That person is centered, self-assured, and shows enough interest about the worlds around them to, in turn, be interesting.
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4. Respect Our Authority
We denigrate our knowledge of a particular subject way too often.
I’ve been at writing conferences where I’ve barely spoken up, yet I have a degree in English literature and creative writing. I know stuff about words, I really do!
I may not be Toni Morrison – but Toni Morrison, dear friends, is not, for her part, me either. She probably can’t quote lines from Star Trek as though from Shakespearean plays, but I can, and I can also show the resonances between the two.
I suspect you know stuff too.
I suspect we don’t speak clearly, we mumble, and we’re constantly having people say, “Excuse me, did you say something?” because we don’t respect our authority.
Authority doesn’t come from knowing everything there is to know about a subject, it comes from us knowing we have something to say.
In a world where politicians are outright goobers trumpeting flagrant ignorance with pride, do we really think we have to be experts to contribute to the varied, random conversations of the day?
Speak up. We might be right, we might be wrong, but we’ll be heard. (Oh, and if we’re wrong, focusing on the other person – again, called listening – might offer a quick education. It’s all linked.)
5. Pump Up The Volume
Humans come equipped with amazing vocal apparatus. Listen to Minnie Ripperton, Luther Vandross, Luciano Pavarotti, or Bjork.
Or even our orators: James Baldwin, Gloria Steinem, Oprah, Barack Obama, Gandhi, Ursula Le Guin: running the range from soft spoken to bombastic, but one common thing binds them. They were all heard.
Volume here isn’t solely a matter of decibels. It’s a matter of having something to say, and of saying it in such a way that the words cannot be mistaken for something meant to be ignored.
It means speaking each word clearly whether our voice is a soft one, a precise one, a loud one that we have to modulate downward, or a flat one which we’ll strive to improve with inflection therapy.
Fear of not being heard is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pumping up our volume lets the words fill with intention and gravitas; it makes listeners lean-in to listen even more.
Let us pledge to speak as though we mean it, even if it’s something silly, something romantic, something insightful, or perhaps (and often best) a question.
6. Chin Up
There’s a ton of sadness in this next paragraph. There are times we feel we don’t have anything to say. There are times we feel we don’t have anything worth saying. There are also times to refrain from saying things that need to be said.
Those times can creep out at inopportune moments, turning our words into mumbles, murmurs, or incoherent jumbles.
This is when we need to imagine ourselves lifting our chins up, staring the whole world in the eyes, and seeing respect and admiration for us reflected back. Courage emboldens. We’d be surprised how much people want to hear what we’re saying.
When things seem more a jumble which makes us mumble, it’s helpful to mentally step back (if we’re unable to prepare in advance) to embrace what we want to say.
Give each word a mental hug and move it to its proper place. Orderly thoughts are the first step to verbal concision, and one trick to ordering our thoughts is to give ourselves go-to mental scripts and phrases.
“Cheat-speaks,” if you will, instead of cheat sheets.
Not so much memorized responses, but memory joggers. If we know we tend to get flustered speaking about a particular subject (or to a particular someone), having a few comfortable and ready phrases to prime the verbal pump can be a godsend.
“I’ve never thought of it that way, but…”
“Know what makes me laugh…”
“Wow, this is really fascinating…”
Things that make us remember what we liked about the subject being spoken of, the person spoken to, or perhaps a question we’ve always wondered about.
7. Confidently Speaking
The single best way to improve our conversational acumen is to improve our self-confidence. Which means stop whispering negative things to ourselves all the flooping time.
There are no guarantees of success in any endeavor, so why would we think speaking would be any different? There’ll be gaffes, sometimes we won’t have a clue what we’re talking about, and let’s not even talk about being attracted to somebody for the first time!
But there will also be magnificent successes beyond our wildest dreams.
So rather than putting our verbal selves forth meekly, open up the mouth and let wordy bits fly. If we trip, we get up, dust off, and keep going.
Conversation isn’t a race or a wrestling match; it’s walking side by side with others, sharing with them things that we’ve seen about the world.
Go ahead and practice. Speak your piece. Say your mind. Let the tongue wag, dear one. Say what needs to be said, then be ready to receive.
In a conversation, even a declarative statement is a question. If we say “Hi,” who knows what magic may come next?
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