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spike bullet August, 1997 - Improving Verbal Skills

Communication Methods
Elements of Communication - Speaking, Listening
Distortion in Sending and Receiving Messages
Listening skills - a key to effective communication
Improving Presentation Skills
Leadership Communications Skills
Example - Leadership Credo Exercise
Speech - Dr. Martin Luther King, I Have a Dream
Internet Resources and Books

spike bullet Communication Methods

Experts say that communication is composed of different methods: words, voice, tone and non-verbal clues. Of these, some are more effective in delivering a message than others. According to research, in a conversation or verbal exchange:

Words are 7% effective

Tone of voice is 38% effective

Non-verbal clues are 55% effective. (see footnotes)

Non-verbal clues include:

  • Body language (e.g., arms crossed, standing, sitting, relaxed, tense),
  • Emotion of the sender and receiver (e.g., yelling, speaking provocatively, enthusiastic)
  • Other connections between the people (e.g., friends, enemies, professional similarities or differences, personal similarities or differences, age similarities or differences, philosophical similarities or differences, attitudes, expectations).

In other words, WHAT you say is not nearly as important as HOW you say it!

A dull message delivered by a charismatic person, filled with energy and enthusiasm will be accepted as brilliant. 

An excellent message delivered by someone who is not interested in the topic, will not engage the enthusiasm of its intended audience.

One of the classic examples of great verbal communications is Dr. Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech.

Why was it such a great speech? It was filled with powerful visual images that provoke strong emotions, delivered with passion by someone who captured the dreams of an entire race. Over time, the speech has transcended its original message to be a message of hope for all people, regardless of race.

spike bullet Communication Elements

Elements of speaking:

  • Body language
  • Voice quality
  • Intention
  • Manner: directness, sincerity
  • Dress and clothing (style, color, appropriateness for situation)
  • Visual aids, animation
  • Eye contact
  • Emotional content, energy, strength
  • Self-concept
  • Concept of others
  • Listening, hearing the underlying message
  • Speaking from the heart
  • Energy
  • Setting, time, place, timing
  • How the messenger holds the message
  • Sensitivity
  • Rhythm and pacing
  • Attitude and confidence
  • Rapport
  • Agenda
  • Purpose of communication - knowing what you want to communicate
  • Clarity
  • Silence, centering, looking

Nervous speaker What does the graphic tell you about this speaker?

Elements of Listening:

  • Attentiveness to speaker
  • Eye contact
  • Intention be fully awake and aware
  • Openness: to other person and your own
  • Paying attention
  • Listening to yourself
  • Feedback
  • Body language
  • Change in pattern
  • Expectations about person speaking, about their message, about their agenda

1) Update March, 2003: According to a website visitor, the percentages should be: Words 7%, Tone 38% and Non-verbal clues 55%.  The visitor also believes these percentages were developed by Professor Albert Mehrabian, and were probably published in his 1971 book, Silent Messages.  Another source, (Chapman University  "What is Non-Verbal Communication") is listed as Albert Mehrabian [Nonverbal Communication (Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972)].

2) We have been asked many times for a current source of the percentages as originally listed ("Words are 7% effective, Tone of voice is 43% effective, Non-verbal clues are 50%").   We lost the original source long before there was an Internet.  

spike bullet Distortion in Sending and Receiving Messages

Notice that between the sender and the receiver the path appears to be straight. However, this is rarely the case. There are many different ways to distort the message or to filter it (both in delivering the message and in receiving the message). All of the distortions can occur for both the listener and the receiver.

Improving verbal communications requires first that we understand that communication is rarely perfect or clear in and of itself. We must learn to listen better and speak more clearly. We must also check whether our message is delivered correctly and whether we have heard a message clearly.

spike bullet Listening Skills - A key element to learning to communicate well

Carl Rogers, in On Becoming a Person, notes that, "The whole task of psychotherapy is the task of dealing with a failure in communication. . . . the major barrier to mutual interpersonal communication is our very tendency to judge, to evaluate, to approve or disapprove, the statement of the other person, or the other group. . . . Real communication occurs when we listen with understanding - to see the idea and attitude from the other person's point of view, to sense how it feels to them, to achieve their frame of reference in regard to the thing they are talking about."

Techniques that help achieve such understanding include the use of "perception checking" questions. Try this exercise with a friend or someone you trust.

Person 1. Start talking about any subject for 4 or 5 sentences

Person 2. When the first person stops talking, repeat back to them what you thought you heard, starting with phrases like:

I want to be sure I understand what you are saying. It sounds like . . .<your interpretation of what they said>

Is part of what you are saying . . . <your interpretation of what they said> ?

What I hear you saying, if I understand you correctly is . . . <your interpretation of what they said>

I want to make sure I am hearing what you are saying . . . <your interpretation of what they said>

What I heard was . . . <your interpretation of what they said. Was that accurate?

Then, reverse the roles and the second person speaks for 4 or 5 sentences, then the first person asks perception checking questions.

By practicing such techniques, you are giving respect to the person speaking and showing that you understand what they are saying. If you misunderstand what they are trying to say, you can both work to clarify the message.

By practicing your listening skills, you will also develop better speaking skills. If you listen to where people misinterpret what you say, you will find ways to make it clearer. Your frustration at being misunderstood will disappear and you will assume less about what you hear because you have confirmed it with the speaker.

Remember, listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing is using the ears to acknowledge the sound of something. Listening means understanding from the perspective of the speaker.

Don Gabor, in his book Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations, gives these examples as ways to boost your listening skills:

Person 1. "I'm not all that crazy about it." < - - - underline indicates key words

Person 2. "Tell me exactly what you don't like about it."


Person 1. "It ought to be pretty clear what I think about that great idea of yours."

Person 2. "I have no idea what you think of my idea. Do you like it or not?"


Person 1. "You know what I'm trying to say!"

Person 2. "No, I don't know what you are trying to say. Please tell me exactly what you mean."


Mr. Gabor offers these tips for using TACTFUL conversations:

  • T = Think before you speak
  • A = Apologize quickly when you blunder
  • C = Converse, don't compete
  • T = Time your comments
  • F = Focus on behavior - not on personality
  • U = Uncover hidden feelings
  • L = Listen for feedback

Other DOs and DON'Ts to Accompany T-A-C-T-F-U-L Strategies

DO be direct, courteous and calm

DON'T be rude and pushy

DO spare others your unsolicited advice

DON'T be patronizing, superior or sarcastic

DO acknowledge that what works for you may not work for others

DON'T make personal attacks or insinuations

DO say main points first, then offer more details if necessary

DON'T expect others to follow your advice or always agree with you

DO listen for hidden feelings

DON'T suggest changes that a person can not easily make.

spike bullet Could You Just Listen?

When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving me advice,
you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn't feel that way,
you are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Listen! All I asked was that you listen, not talk or do - just hear me.

Advice is cheap; 20 cents will get you both Dear Abby and Billy Graham in the same paper.

I can do for myself; I'm not helpless - maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.

When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself,
you contribute to my fear and inadequacy.

But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel, no matter how irrational,
then I can quit trying to convince you and can get about the business of understanding what's behind this irrational feeling.

When that's clear, the answers are obvious and I don't need advice..

Irrational feelings make more sense when we understand what's behind them..

Perhaps that's why prayer works, sometimes, for some people - because God is mute, and He/She doesn't give advice or try to fix things.

"They" just listen and let you work it out for yourself.

So, please listen and just hear me.

And if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn - and I'll listen to you.

. . . Author Unknown

spike bullet Improving Presentation Skills

Making effective presentations to groups or key individuals is a regular part of an executive's job. Delivering a clearly understandable message that gains the support of the listeners obviously requires expertise in public speaking. Less obviously, it requires that you understand the perspective of your audience and be willing to adjust your presentation based on feedback during the session.

Experts tell us that public speaking ranks highest on the list of situations people fear most (followed by death!). Overcoming this fear requires education and practice, practice, practice!

Few of us are born to be excellent public speakers. We offer encouragement to those who feel insecure don't give up! Organizations such as Toastmasters (and many others) offer proven techniques for overcoming fear and assistance in mastering master speaking skills. We have seen many, many people become accomplished speakers, who in the past became speechless when asked to speak in public.

A personal experience: Many years ago, I (Barbara Taylor) worked for a boss who recognized that a co-worker and I would not progress well in our careers if we did not learn to overcome our fear of public speaking.  The boss was program director for a national professional association and scheduled us to speak at their upcoming convention (a year away). We (naturally) were horrified when he told us his plan for us to speak there!! He explained that he would spend the year teaching us and coaching us how to speak in public. We were quite skeptical at first. After several months of coaching, we had lost our intense fear of speaking in public. By the time the convention came, we were excited and confident. We felt that we could talk about anything to anybody - because we had been doing it in so many different ways as part of our training. It was a wonderful learning experience for both of us and helped us both immensely as we progressed into management.

Some tips for improving presentation skills:

  1. Know your subject! This is most important.
  2. Prepare for the speaking situation (outline, writing the entire presentation, delivering it to friends or whatever works for you). Even professional public speakers take time to prepare themselves.
  3. Prepare outlines and overheads to help develop your confidence in your presentation (part of knowing your topic well).
  4. Have your outline (or overheads, slides or note cards) with you to refer to as you make the presentation and to trigger your thoughts as you speak.
  5. In the early stages of your preparation, ask someone you trust to listen to your presentation and give you honest feedback in a one-on-one situation. Ask them what works well and what needs improvement. The more important the results of your presentation are to you, the more important it is to get help in refining your presentation.
  6. Take classes where you are able to develop presentations and have them critiqued (e.g., classes in public speaking or verbal presentation skills, Toastmasters).
  7. Tape your presentation (videotape is best) and ask others to critique your presentation. Watch yourself and learn to look for subtle body language clues to your confidence or insecurity.
  8. Talk to people you respect about how they learned to speak well. Ask them to coach you (if that is appropriate) or try to find someone you admire who will work with you.
  9. When you are confident, relaxed and enthusiastic about your topic, that comes through strongly to your audience. Remember how much comes through non-verbal clues.
  10. Ask for feedback from your audience about your presentation and pay attention to what they say. 
  11. In workshops, ask the participants to introduce themselves, state why they are there and what they hope to gain from the presentation. (This is most appropriate if you are making a speech or giving a class to strangers). Based on the participants' needs and expectations, you may adjust your presentation as you go through it.
  12. In a management presentation especially (e.g., to present your new budget or present sales information), stop occasionally to ask if people understand what you have said.
  13. If you have an executive coach (or someone who can play that role), have them sit in on your presentations and help you pick up clues from the group. (We did this very effectively with one of our clients who had been promoted to department manager. We used hand signals and other cues to let her know when she was going too fast, too slow or missing the body language of an executive group where she gave regular presentations.)
  14. And, most of all Practice, practice, practice!

An aside about written communications:

The disparity in methods of delivering messages is why it is so difficult to write something that is clearly understand by large audiences - only 7% effectiveness is achieved by the words alone!

That is why good visual presentation using graphics, color, balanced design layout adds so much to a written message. These additional "clues" can help compensate for the non-verbal aspect of a written message by triggering emotions on the part of the reader. Without such non-verbal clues, the Internet would fail miserably as an effective communication tool.

Notice the difference in these two graphics (one animated and one plain) and the word by itself.

animated graphic . . . black/white still graphic . . . Click.

Which one gets your attention? Keep this little example in mind as you develop overheads, handouts and other written material for your presentations.

spike bullet Leadership Communications Skills

Leaders, executives and managers need to be very clear about what they expect from others. One of the best exercises we have seen to assist in this area is from the book, The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. One of their suggestions for setting an example and behaving consistently with your stated values is to write a "Leadership Credo."

How to Write a Leadership Credo

  1. Imagine that you are being sent on an assignment to a remote post for nine months. You will be unable to communicate in any way with your team during the time you are away.
  2. After nine months, you will return and resume your present responsibilities.
  3. You are allowed to leave behind a one page guideline (your business beliefs, philosophy, values, credo) on how people should conduct business in your absence.
  4. Write a memo with your guidelines to your team members and others.
  5. These guiding principles will be given to everyone who works in the organization you lead.
  6. Take the time to do this exercise.
  7. Treat it as real.
  8. Share it with the people on your team.
  9. Read it to them and give it to them in written form.
  10. Ask them if they understand it.
  11. Ask them if they can adhere to the values you have given them.
  12. Review and revise your statement as necessary.

This "simple" exercise is a very powerful way to measure your effectiveness in clear communication. It forces you to create a document that is clear, powerful and succinctly captures your business philosophy. It is also a strong measure of your ability to translate what you feel into succinct communication that others can use, understand and learn from.

One example of a leadership credo actually put into practice is shown below.

If you are willing to do this exercise, it will forever change you for the better. It may lead to pleasantly surprising results with your team members.

spike bullet Example of a Leadership Credo

  • Trust yourself and your own instincts
  • Respect others at all times
  • Keep smiling
  • Love yourself
  • Share and stay together
  • Enjoy what you do
  • Always learn new things
  • Accept responsibility for yourself and your actions
  • Leave the world a better place than you found it
  • Ask "why" and "why not"
  • Look at "problems" as "challenges"
  • See everyday as a gift
  • Be grateful, always
  • And, most of all, remember that I love you.

(Comment: the last line was suggested by the team members)

This exercise was part of Barbara Taylor's class in "Leadership in the Ministry" at Ernest Holmes College.


[Excerpts - Dr. Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC]

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood....

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers....

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with.... With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together. . . knowing that we will be free one day . . .

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, 'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.' And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

So let Freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire; let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York; let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania; let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado . . .

Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. 'From every mountainside, let freedom ring.'

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to Join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!'

World Wide Web graphic Internet Resources

Links updated 3/21/2003

book graphic Books Disclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • Genderspeak: Men, Women, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self�Defense. Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158�0012. 1993.  Suzette Elgin has written several books on communication. ISBN: 0471580163
  • How to Read a Person Like A Book, Gerald Nierenberg. Original 1971.   Pocket Books; Reissue edition (December 1982) ISBN: 0671735578
  • On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers. Houghton Mifflin. 1961
  • Speaking Your Mind in 101 Difficult Situations. Don Gabor, Simon & Schuster, New York. 1994 ISBN 0-671-79505-8
  • That's Not What I Meant! How conversational style makes or breaks relationships. Deborah Tannen. Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (January 1991) ISBN: 0345340906
  • The Leadership Challenge: How to Get Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations, James Kouzes, Barry Posner.  Jossey-Bass; (May 1990) ASIN: 155542211X (excellent and practical ways to improve our ability to work with people)
  • The Viscott Method, David Viscott. Pocket Books; Reissue edition (September 1990) ISBN: 0671729942
  • When I say no, I feel guilty (bestseller on Assertiveness Training). Manuel J. Smith. Bantam/Non-Fiction; Reissue edition (February 1, 1975) ISBN: 0553263900
  • Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?: 25 Guidelines for Good Communication.  John Powell, Thomas More Publishing; Reprint edition (June 1995) ISBN: 088347316X
  • You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Deborah Tannen. Original 1990.  Quill; (July 24, 2001) ISBN: 0060959622

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