Today’s column concerns every-day conversation — how we informally deliver our words to one another. It deals with behaviors rather than content. Why center our attention on how we express ourselves in daily chats? My response: Whether we fully realize it or not, most of us seek to project our best selves.

To be sure, working toward that level requires effort, but be motivated by this potential payoff: listeners who are attentive, respectful and receptive. The behaviors presented today are pursued routinely by successful professional speakers. They are behaviors that can work for you as well.

• Think about it: Before saying anything to anybody, give at least a moment’s thought to the idea that you want to express. How long is a “moment”? That’s for you to decide. Try, say, five-second pauses to see if they allow you enough time to shape what you want to say. If they aren’t, proceed incrementally — perhaps adding one second at a time.

The main point is: Think first; speak second. Be sure of the message you want to deliver. Unless you are, don’t expect your listener to grasp it.

• Er ... ah ... um: Thinking ahead not only will enable you to deliver more organized comments, reactions and opinions, it is bound to reduce the unwanted noises that can distract listeners from your message: irksome expressions such as “er,” “ah” and “um.”

Harvard University educator Steven D. Cohen, an authority on persuasive communication, laments: “It is difficult for me to watch political speeches. After all, I know that I am going to hear one alarming word over and over again. It’s not ‘debt,’ ‘deficit’ or ‘downturn.’ It’s ‘um.’ ”

When you inject these unneeded fillers every sentence or two, your listeners may conclude that you are disorganized, unsure of what you want to say, and need time for the right words to come along. Be aware of and guard against this disservice.

• The eyes have it: Whether conversing with a person or a group, begin by looking directly into the eyes of your listeners. Maintain that eye contact — for the most part — throughout the conversation. In our culture, this behavior is expected.

To emphasize a point, lean forward slightly; that behavior conveys your eagerness to reach your listeners. If they look confused, repeat your message in different words. In a lengthy conversation, pause periodically to ask for questions or to invite comments.

• Don’t “perform”: Most of us want to “sound good” — especially when we are being introduced to others. This may cause us to reach for words and phrases that aren’t part of our normal vocabulary. In “Effective Writing for Engineers, Managers, and Scientists,” H.J. Tichy tells us, “Fancy words, short or long, are undesirable.” Writers who insist upon using them “initiate work rather than begin it; they activate a project rather than start it ... and they earn compensation, not pay.”

Stay with words that you — and your listeners — are comfortable with.

• Project persuasively: Do you normally express yourself with your hands? Do you raise your voice when you want to emphasize a word or phrase? These actions can be effective. But recognize that the more you use them in casual conversation, the more likely they are to seem showy and artificial to listeners. In short, pick your spots.

• Listen actively: As you may have concluded by now, a good speaker is always a good listener. These two qualities are inseparable. Of course, being a good listener does NOT necessarily mean you agree with everything others say. Rather, it means fully absorbing their ideas and thoughtfully responding to them.

To retain and easily refer to the thoughts offered in this column, develop a checklist that summarizes them.

In conclusion, I offer words from Colossians 4:6 that I believe relate to and reinforce many of the thoughts previously provided: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one.”


Times-News columnist Ernie Mazzatenta, a Hendersonville resident, is a language consultant and teacher of communication skills. Reach him at