Six Secrets of Top Communicators

Sharpen your skills to make sure you're heard loud and clear.

In 19 years as host of Work With Marty Nemko, a radio show on an NPR affiliate in San Francisco, I've interviewed people with varying skill levels of communication. And even most of the good ones could learn a thing or two.

Taking your skills to the legendary level can help not only in public speaking, but throughout your worklife.

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How to improve

After appearing on a recent show, a guest asked, "How could I have been better?" Here are six recommendations I gave her that might help you too:

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1. There's no substitute for being an expert. My guest was long on charisma but short on expertise. For every speaker who manages to skate by on charisma and motivational mumbo-jumbo, there are 1,000 such speakers who are dismissed as lightweights or charlatans. Instead, focus on providing potent, non-obvious practicalities, Better to speak about a small area in which you're expert than to try to slide by on slickness on a bigger topic.

Becoming expert needn't mean a back-to-school stint. Surprisingly often, it's just a matter of doing some judicious Googling. A little preparation can go a long way.

2. Trustworthiness is critical. How do you prove you're trustworthy in an era in which many people start out doubting you, especially if you're in business, politics, law or journalism (the least-trusted professionals according to a Gallup poll.) The most powerful thing you can do is to make statements that are not in your self-interest. Examples:

  • In a radio show in which I extolled the virtues of blogging, I said, "Publishing in the mainstream media is annoying. For example, half my editors worsen my submissions." Your reading that statement makes you trust me more because that statement could hurt me. Obviously, my editor has read this column and she likely won't be happy about my denigrating her profession even if she thinks I consider her among the other half of editors that are good.
  • Talk about what you're struggling with, and what has and hasn't helped you make progress. That's often more helpful than some sanitized success story and is more likely to increase your trustworthiness.
  • Without sounding like a basket case, mention a personal problem you're facing: a divorce, a health issue, a crisis of meaning. We all can relate, and your trustworthiness will grow.

3. Express important non-obvious perspectives. So many speakers say the obvious. For example, the aforementioned radio guest stressed the importance of networking, a good resume, blah, blah, blah. That bores people and wastes their time. Mainly discuss things that are fresh and important.

Contrarian perspectives are particularly valuable. For example, in the aforementioned encomium to blogging, I said, "In the mainstream media, I rarely get to write about what I most want to write about: a truly honest examination of race in the workplace, that schools and colleges are unfair to boys and men, that reverse discrimination is a net negative to society, and that education, especially higher education, is America's most overrated product and desperately needs reinvention." Presenting well-founded contrarian positions do more for the world than being just another voice in a very large chorus, for example, if like my guest, you extol the value of collaboration and of work/life balance.

Presenting contrarian perspectives can hurt or help your career, but I have become convinced that the risk is worth taking, as long as you can back up your position. How often I've been told things like, "I might not agree with all your contentions, but I sure respect your bravery and integrity in forwarding them." And no matter what people have said, when I'm on my deathbed, I'll feel better about my life for having taken unpopular stances that I truly believe in.

4. When you speak, think like a concert pianist: In virtually every sentence, vary your tone, pace, and intensity. Include dramatic pauses. It's so easy to space out when listening to someone. The antidote is constant variation.

5. No scripting. Other than TV and radio pros, very few people can read without sounding like they're reading. Other than actors, very few people can speak memorized lines without it sounding memorized. So, don't script what you're going to say. Write a one-word or one-phrase reminder for each of your major talking points, practice your talk by reviewing a recording of it, and you're ready.

6. Be interactive. For example, on the radio, I often ask my guests to role play and I ask my listeners such questions as "In this situation what would you do?" Even in writing, you can be interactive by asking your reader a question. For example, what's one thing you want to do differently as the result of reading this column?

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.

Marty Nemko
Contributing Columnist,