Much of the seminal research into nonverbal communications was conducted in the 1970s by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA. He found one of the most persuasive nonverbal indicators to be the immediacy of communication.
Just think how important this becomes when you take questions from the audience, engage in an interview with a reporter, or answer questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. People who answer more quickly are seen as more persuasive and honest.
Our Limbic Brains at Work
Admittedly, this is one of those qualities that makes no sense on its face. A cogent response may be best delivered following a pensive moment of reflection. Yet our instincts tell us that a prompt reply is more credible.
Do not interpret this to mean that you should wing it when under questioning solely to respond instantly. Rather, it suggests the need to forecast potential questions and decide during your preparation phase which part of your message best responds to a particular issue.
Mehrabian also points to “speech disturbance frequency” as playing a role in how listeners perceive you. If you litter your speech with excessive ums, ers, or overly long gaps, they can build a negative attitude toward you. They might think you are trying to pull a fast one (to say nothing of sounding less than confident when such disruptions are used too often). Any positive inclinations they have toward you might dissipate.
Speech Disfluencies Have a Place
This leads to a question I often hear from clients who come to me for communications counsel: Should I try to eliminate every single “um” from my speech? My advice: No. I believe a conversational style works best in most presentation and media situations. Most of us express the occasional disturbance and, in my view, that is fine. If, however, every sentence is replete with such disruptions, communication begins to suffer and the problem does need to be addressed.
At the same time, if your speech pattern reflects no disruptions, don’t try to build them in. I have heard executives and politicians try this in a laughable attempt to evoke an “everyman” persona during press interviews. It comes across as phony. Viewers tend to bristle at these obviously bogus ploys. Why some people feel a need to mess with a strength many would die for — elegant syntax — is beyond me.
Avoid Rigid Systems
Some consultants and certain organizations, such as Toastmasters, try to stamp out every er and um. I suggest you pay them no attention unless, again, the disruptions are excessive and need to be corrected because they interfere with delivery of your message.
Other types of speech disruptions — altering a sentence mid-stream, speaking in sentence fragments, omitting words, repeating statements unnecessarily, experiencing a slip of the tongue, and stuttering — can be signs of high anxiety or uneasiness. We all fall victim to such disruptions every now and then. As with um and er, if you find these traits dominating your speech pattern, your listeners may begin to question your legitimacy. If that is the case, seek guidance from a reputable consultant (or, in the case of stuttering or stammering, a qualified speech therapists) who can suggest improvement strategies.
Are you sometimes stumped by difficult questions? Or perhaps even flummoxed by routine requests? You need my position paper, “The 411 on Q&A.” Request your copy now.