The human voice has remarkable power to incite change, from the smallest nuance in a relationship to global impact in politics. But whilst we joyfully celebrate our child’s first words, as soon as conversation begins to flow we start to take the skill of speaking for granted.
At school we learn how to read and write, but not how to speak or listen. Society expects us to accumulate our speaking skills through experience, but research shows that this is not happening. There’s a huge imbalance between a minority of polished communicators and those who are far less confident, particularly when it comes to speaking in public. Up to three people in four suffer from some level of glossophobia (fear of public speaking), and around half of us are natural introverts – people for whom powerful speaking may not come naturally.
This imbalance is often obvious in the workplace. Kellogg School in the US recently found that in an average large meeting, three people do 70% of the talking. Imagine the number of great ideas that simply aren’t being heard in meetings every day! Lack of communication skills is holding back many people from making a real difference and achieving their goals, both professionally and personally.
Thankfully, speaking is a skill that we can consciously improve. The benefits of better speaking can be broken down into three areas: happiness, effectiveness and wellbeing.
We all know what happiness is, but achieving it remains the eternal human challenge. It certainly isn’t about material possessions or financial wealth: once people are above poverty level and not stressing about where their next meal is coming from, psychologists find that there is no correlation at all between money and happiness. Nor do fame, respect or reputation create happiness: famous or gifted people are just as prone to misery as the rest of us (maybe more so if you believe the gossip pages).
The only factors that do seem to correlate with happiness are connectedness and service. People who have strong family and social connections, or who serve others in meaningful ways, tend to be happier than average. Self-expression is central to both of these things, so effective speaking has a potent effect on how happy we feel. It’s also simply frustrating and depressing to be ignored or unexpressed.
Powerful speaking gets things done. Better communication can help lead a team more efficiently, communicate complex ideas with clarity, or inspire people to action.
Most major achievements are beyond the scope of one person acting alone, which means we often need to enrol others in order to achieve our goals. Throughout human history, powerful speakers have inspired people to change their beliefs, create or destroy social systems, adopt lifestyles, follow religious or philosophical paths, take up arms and fight, form movements, work in teams, and build vast monuments. Innumerable great sporting performances have been triggered by an inspirational talk from a coach or captain.
Today, our voice faces a range of newer obstacles: attention spans are shorter, technology is designed to grab attention, and always-on living puts us in a whirlwind of hurried messages. With this noise, it becomes even more important to speak with power in order to be heard.
If you want to make things happen, you will need to inspire others, and you may need to be a leader. Your voice is the most powerful tool you have.
If you’ve ever had the experience of not being listened to, not being able to make a dent in an argument, being disrespected, feeling invisible in a group, not being taken seriously, being talked over, being continually interrupted, or secretly crying out to be heard, then you know that the inability to express oneself is bad for you. It’s debilitating and frustrating. It creates stress and anxiety if it continues — and it can eventually cause sickness or even violence.
Imagine the warm satisfaction of knowing that you’ve successfully communicated an important idea, expressed your true value, or strengthened a treasured relationship. If only we taught our children how to express themselves clearly and powerfully, how much less ill health, stress and violence would we see in the world?
The benefits of better speaking also extend beyond personal wellbeing to our societies. Right now we’re experiencing the political repercussions of breakdowns in communication. Democracy depends on civilised disagreement, and this means conscious listening to reasoned speaking. Oratory was the elegant and skilful exposition of an argument in a debate in order to persuade others or explain complex issues. Increasingly, political discourse is being carried out in soundbites to journalists or even in 140 bombastic characters. This is a recipe for polarisation, bigotry and violence. The antidote is skilled communication.
Speaking skills are critical if you want to make a positive impact in the world – whether that’s in business or as a parent, partner, and friend. You owe it to yourself, your ideas, your dreams, and the people you care about to hone your speaking skills, and learn to master the instrument we all play – the human voice.
I was taught this exercise many years ago by a wise old friend named Charlie. I was bemoaning someone being in my way and Charlie put his hand on my arm.