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Professionalism & Etiquette – Verbal Communication and Body Language

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Professionalism & Etiquette – Verbal Communication and Body Language," in The Business Professor, updated December 11, 2019, last accessed April 8, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/professionalism-etiquette-communication-advice/.

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Speaking Effectively & Body Language

Developing a professional brand is all about how others perceive you. Others perceive you by communicating with you, observing your actions, or communicating with others about your words and actions or their perception of you.

With this in mind, your ability to communicate effectively is a primary factor in building your professional brand. In fact, the most desired characteristic of a new employee are soft skills – namely the ability to communicate well. We have an entire series on effective communication techniques. In this article, I want to provide some simple tips on communicating effectively.

Speaking Style & Voice Tips

It may seem odd, but the characteristics of our voices greatly affect how others see us. While it is very difficult to dramatically change the way we speak, there are numerous things that can serve to create fit, avoid bias, and make us better understood. All of these things have positive effects on how we are perceived by others.
Below are several tips to make your voice more appealing and to be more professional in your speaking habits.

  • Depth of Voice – Deeper voices are considered more authoritative and characteristic of a leader. While it is difficult to move down octaves in our vocal range, speaking from the chest (rather than pure head voice) is a good practice.
  • Accent – Most people in the United States have some form of accent that mirrors the speaking characteristics of where we were raised. For many, accents are endearing. Extremely strong accents, however, can be negatively perceived. Forceful accents are more commonly associated with individuals from lower socio-economic and lesser-educated classes of individual. Sadly, classism is still perhaps the most prevalent form of prejudice (whether conscious or implicit) in US society. As such, neutralizing a strong accent can help you fit with individuals involved in professional business practice.
  • Word Choice – Word choice, like accents, creates a perception of who we are to third parties. Notably, using poor grammar or slang words is considered by many to be low class and unprofessional. As previously discussed, classism is prevalent and can be a barrier to establishing the level of fit necessary for career progression. If you have difficulty speaking in a grammatically correct manner, as with other challenges, you will need to practice. Try emersing yourself in personal interactions, television, podcasts, etc., that use proper grammar. Begin imitating their sentences and word choice.
  • Volume & Tempo – In a professional setting, speaking too softly is associated with being timid. Speaking too loudly is seen as obnoxious. Speaking extremely slowly can be frustrating to others. It is also associated with low intelligence. Speaking to quickly can be considered manipulative or deceptive – hence the phrase “fast talker” to refer to a con man or charlatan. Also, you will need to focus on delivering sentences smoothly with little interruption. A shrill pitch or staccato delivery can be negatively perceived. If establishing an appropriate volume and tempo for professional conversations does not come naturally to you, then you will need to practice. Perhaps video and audio record yourself having conversations. Listening to yourself can help you understand how you sound to others.

Body Language

Body language is equally important in personal interactions as verbal communication. Body language (and facial expressions) help the other person understand so much about what we are communicating. While effectively using body language when communicating is the top of an entire course series, below are some tips on body language that demonstrate confidence:

  • Personal Space – Every culture has a norm with regard to comfort in physical space and physical closeness during conversations. Be aware of the prevalent cultural tendencies; but, also look for social cues that your method of physical presence is uncomfortable. With this in mind, match your level of physical engagement to that of the other party. Often, the level of engagement will change throughout the conversation – particularly as you become more familiar and comfortable with the other party.
  • Facial Expressions – Facial expressions help provide context and emotion in our communications. Thus, effectively using facial expressions is a strong communication tool. It does, however, require extensive practice. You will need to practice your facial expressions when listening intently, indicating understanding or agreement, signaling thought or contemplation, subtle surprise, engaged interest, etc. Once again, effectively using facial expressions could fill an entire course. The first step, however, is to understand how you already subconsciously use facial expressions. Try spending time watching yourself in a mirror while talking. This is a proven training method for actors. You will begin to recognize your common facial expressions and how you can use them in your communications.
  • Eye Contact – Making eye contact while communicating demonstrates confidence. Of course, there is a fine line between staring inappropriately and being engaged in what the other person is saying. Blinking, nodding, looking off to signal thought, etc., are all methods of effective eye contact. Specifically, they break of the feeling of a staring contest. All of this sounds easy, but I recommend that you practice having conversations with others while focusing on your eye contact.
  • Stand Up Straight – Slouching diminishes your physical stature and makes you appear timid. Some taller people have a tendency to slouch to be less intimidating and more inviting to others. They do this in an attempt to appear affable in social circles. This is particularly true for tall women. When developing your professional brand, however, projecting confidence is desirable, as it insinuates competence and leadership ability.
  • Seated Communications – Having a professional conversation while seated requires its own level of practice. You want to make certain you demonstrate engagement in the conversation in any conversation. In casual conversations, however, you also want to appear relaxed and calm. Here are some simple tips for body language while seated.
    • Lean Forward – Sitting up straight while slightly leaning forward demonstrates engagement. This is particularly important in professional meetings or interviews. It is less important in casual conversations – though you want to still demonstrate engagement in these scenarios.
    • Feet on the Floor – In a professional meeting, keep your feet on the floor. Crossing your legs tends to make you lean backward and appear too casual. In a casual conversation, crossing your legs and leading back a bit is fine – though always focus on maintaining engagement.
  • Hand Gestures – Talking while using your arms and hands can add emphasis and emotion to your communications. Further, not being expressive gives the impression of a lack of energy. It is not very sociable. Too much hand and arm movement, however, can make you appear spastic and out of control. Do not cross your arms, as this is generally perceived as guarded or standoffish. Also, do not point directly at others, as this is perceived as overly authoritative, condescending, or patronizing. Also, be careful on touching the other person. In a casual conversation, an appropriately-timed embrace, pat on the back, hand-shake, etc., can be endearing and appreciated. There is very little room for physical touching in professional conversations outside of a handshake to start and end the conversation. So, in professional conversations, make certain that your hand motions are measured and not overly exaggerated. Use your arms and hands to accentuate your points when necessary or as a demonstrative aid. Simply, make certain that your movements add to your communication objectives and do not detract from your objective of appearing confident, competent, and engaged.

Be Prepared to Communicate

Effective professional communication requires practice and preparation. Practice concerns going out and practicing in a direct and concerted manner the tips and techniques that we review in this article. Preparation means having all the necessary information to have a conversation. Here are some tips for being prepared to communicate:

  • Know Your Audience – Make certain to learn the names, background, or other relevant information about people with whom you will need to communicate. This is true for new introductions and routine acquaintances. The most sincere form of communication is personal in nature. That is, it needs to appear genuine and sincere. People who are able to recall important details about a person’s life, interests, beliefs, etc., can effectively make meaning conversation. I recently attended an event hosted by a retired General (US Army) turned Company Executive. There were 50 people in the room. The General knew everyone’s name and key information about every person in attendance. Every conversation he undertook appeared sincere and meaningful. This shows an extraordinarily high level of dedication to professionalism in communication.
  • Master Pleasantries and Small Talk – It is wise to begin any conversation with “pleasantries” or general topics that serve as easy conversation starters. Pleasantries make up the beginning of what is commonly known as “small talk”. Making small talk is an art form. It serves the purpose of breaking the ice and leading into a more meaningful and productive conversation. Successfully doing so requires preparing a litany of pre-packed questions and anecdotes to drive conversation such as, how was your weekend?, is your family doing well?, questions about the weather, sports, or topics of common interest. It also requires the ability to read social cues from the other party. While you can certainly prepare topics of conversation and methods of engaging the other party, the ability to read social cues in the other person only comes through extensive practice.
  • Stay Informed – You should stayed informed of major happening in the world and within your specific area of commonality with the person with whom you are speaking. The best way to do this is to read or watch the news. Note, I strongly recommend against watching biased information sources that are more engaged in persuasion than information. In any event, this will keep you abreast of recent occurrences in the world. For industry or specific subject-matter knowledge, you will need to curate some informative sources of information. This is easily done through the litany of smartphone applications available with this functionality. Be careful in bringing up any topic that could generate dissent with the other party. Focus on topics that are not divisive. Simply, be prepared to acknowledge any situation or scenario that arises in conversation. Finally, form a neutral opinion for any situation that recognizes both (or all) sides of any position or argument. It simply needs to be knowledgeable with regard to facts, rather than heavily influenced by opinion.

Additional Elements of Etiquette in Professional Communications

Please & Thank You

Showing gratitude and appreciation is an important communication skill. Please is the universal standard when asking something of someone else, followed by a thank you to demonstrate gratitude. Some individuals in leadership positions make requests of others without using please and thank you. Research shows that practices like this make employees feel less appreciated – which, in turn, leads to lower employment satisfaction, poorer performance, and diminished company loyalty. The best practice in professional and casual settings is to use words of gratitude and appreciation whenever you ask something of someone else and when they doing things that otherwise benefit you.

With this in mind, don’t overdo it. Some people who show gratitude have a tendency to hark on (or linger too long in) the moment. Show your appreciation and make obvious that it is sincere, then move on. Spending too much timing thanking someone or showing gratitude can have the effect of appearing insincere or it can desensitize them to future demonstrations of appreciation. We all know people who feign over small things to great lengths. Eventually, the positive emotions that we feel from another person’s gratitude become less special.

Interjections

Inserting yourself into a conversation or making interjections when another person in speaking is a very difficult task to do in a professional manner. When in a larger group of conversants, it can be difficult to make a meaningful contribution or secure the undivided attention of the group. Below are some tips on how to do so professionally.

  • Wait for a Pause – Never interrupt someone else. Wait for a natural pause in their dialogue before interjecting. This takes some level of ability to read social cues as to when someone has completed their thought.
  • Make it Agreeable – Even if your statement is unique or contradictory, begin your interjection with a statement acknowledging the other party’s statements in a positive and re-affirming manner. This level of initial agreement will allow you to introduce your thoughts as complimentary or in furtherance of the original speaker’s thoughts. At that point you are free to introduce your ideas that may be different from those of the other party. You have established a common foundation from which to move the conversation forward.
  • Use Your Whole Body – When making an interjection, you can easily signal to others your intent to do so in advance. This is generally done through active listening and body movements that signal engagement. For example, you may nod subtly as the other person is talking. A quick change in facial expression can signal a new idea that you want to express. You can also raise your head and eyes up in a motion that signals your deeply pondering the message you just heard. You might lift your arms subtly from your side, as you would do when delivering a monologue to signal your intent to add to the conversation.
  • Do Not Overtalk – Make certain to make your interjection and supporting dialogue in a manner that leaves open the opportunity for others to engage in the conversation. Do no over talk or monopolize the conversation for an extended period of time.

Off-Limit Conversation Topics

There are numerous manners of conversations or topics that you should avoid. They will paint you in a negative light and harm you reputation as a professional. Below are some things to consider.

  • Negativity – Research shows that speaking negatively of someone else creates a negative perception of you in the listener’s mind. In fact, it creates the subconscious belief that you would likewise speak negatively about the listener or any other person if the opportunity were to arise. This negative perception is very difficult to reverse. This principle applies to critical statements and gossip.
  • Profanity – Depending upon your audience, profanity may be negatively received. This is particularly true in certain parts of the United States and among specific demographics. Many people associate using profanity with a bad temper and lack of self-control. In any event, you should refrain from using profanity unless it feels natural based upon the demeanor and word choice of the other party. For example, the famous marketer and speaker Gary Vaynerchuck is known for using profanity. He sees profanity as a more honest manner of expressing one’s feelings. So, it is not unheard of for the use of profanity to help you find fit in an organization.
  • Religion – Religious beliefs can be a taboo topic in the business environment. There are many religions in the world. You should never make assumptions about a person’s religious beliefs. Individuals following these religions share a variety of beliefs. These beliefs are the subject of faith rather than fact or reason. Talking about religion in a way that conflicts with a person’s beliefs can offensive or poorly received. No amount of logic, reasoning, or explanation tends to be successful in changing or altering the ingrained religious beliefs of others. As such, it is best to avoid topics – particularly those that would be conflictive or perceived negatively.
  • Politics – Political opinions are some of the strongest dispositions a person has. This is generally because political beliefs are closely tied to personal influences (parents and loved ones) in a person’s life. As such, their political beliefs often become very personal in nature. For this reason, it is best to avoid political topics in the professional environment. If confronted with a political conversation, it is best to avoid voicing a strong opinion. If pressed, the best scenario is simply to recite or acknowledge what you know to the state of affairs or facts of the situation. Even if you have very strong opinions, taking this neutral stance will avoid alienating your professional connections.
  • Intimate Details of One’s Personal Life – People are genuinely interested in the personal lives of others. We like to hear about other people’s travels, interests, and family. Oversharing, however, can equally be a turnoff. This is true when sharing private, highly intimate details about amorous relationships, medical conditions, emotional turmoil, or personal vices. While it is advisable to find a confidant (such as a loved one or professional therapist) to hear your troubles, your professional connections are not the best choice. You should certainly not voice any of these topics or issues openly in the office. Likewise, you should not solicit this type of information from others. You should not be careless in haphazardly spreading this information by speaking loudly on the phone or failing to maintain adequate privacy. Likewise, you should never listen in or eavesdrop on the conversations of others that involve intimate matters. If confronted by subordinates or colleagues about highly personal matters, you should not become embroiled in the personal matters of your professional connections. Rather, you should show compassion and recommend or assist them in securing an appropriate person to speak with about their issues

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