It’s not just what you say, but how you say it: Tips for improving your communication skills

Communication skills are critically important to success in most industries, even if a position itself does not count among its responsibilities “communication” or “public speaking” you will need to communicate well to land it. Entire books have been written on communication skills, from those specifically about public speaking, to others about designing persuasive presentations, and still more about body language. This article distills some common and key advise to help you become a better communicator.

The advice that follows is declarative, and sometimes unequivocal, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to these rules.

I’ve split these recommendations into three sections, Nonverbal Delivery, Verbal Delivery, and Content, and presented it in that order because most research shows that is the order in which your public presenting influences your audience’s opinion of you and what you say.

Nonverbal Delivery – Body Language

Humans are attracted to, and thus distracted by motion. This is a survival skill and is innate. You want to minimize or eliminate any motion that would distract your audience from paying attention to your face (facial expressions) and your presentation (content).

Body: Don’t rock, sway, step, pace or otherwise significantly move your feet during short presentations or interviews/networking conversations.  Plant your feet parallel to each other, approximately hip width apart, with both feet flat on the ground. If you need to turn to different people in a small audience, turn from your hips facing your entire body toward the individual(s) you are addressing. Try to avoid turning only your head (like a tennis spectator at half court) unless you are making an “aside” comment. When presenting in front of large audiences, walking on the stage can be used to great effect to keep the audience’s attention, you will see this in many TED talks, for example.

In a seated interview, you should place your feet flat on the ground, and keep your knees together and your back straight. Don’t hunch over, but do lean forward to engage your interviewer.

Arms: Imagine you have a wash cloth tucked in the pit of your arm, and you don’t want to drop it — you can even practice this — and you will get a sense of the range of motion you should have with your upper arms. You don’t want them pinned to your side, but you also don’t want them flapping wildly.  Your forearms can move more, but you should keep them (and your hands — more on hands below) in “the strike zone” in front of you, which is roughly the space from the top of your hips to your shoulder. You can also leave your arms at your sides, or move them there when you have no other gesture.

Hands: In November, the Washington Post  ran a fantastic article, “ What to do with your hands when speaking in public” that is based largely a recent study of successful TED speakers and recommendations by the researcher who conducted the study. It is well worth the (short) read. There is significant overlap from the advice you’ve heard me give and will read below, but their article includes nice illustrations.

Keep your hands in the “Strike zone” described above.  You want them to be in your peripheral field of vision (or completely out of it at your sides) so that they will not distract your audience from looking at your face. You can use your hands to punctuate your presentation and draw the audience’s attention to your face where you will be able to connect with them. You can also use them to “dual code” what you are saying. Using gestures for big and small, and for weighing options, or indicating a progression of time, or numbers less than 5.

Keep a strong alignment from your elbows to the tips of your middle fingers. The idea here is not have your hands flopping and flapping at your wrists, or your fingers splayed outward or curled inward. Try to avoid canned gestures, like the Clinton Thumb (capping a fist with your thumb and jabbing the whole thing at your audience). Try to avoid pointing – it is perceived as aggressive — unless the gesture has a specific and intentional meaning.

  • Symmetrical hand gestures tend to be less distracting.
  • Deliberate hand gestures are less distracting than random or jumpy ones.
  • Try to not cross either hand in front of your body unless in a specific, intentional gesture.
  • Avoid clasping your hands tightly whether they are cupped, fingers interlaced, or palms together (prayer).  The jury is out on the “steeple” gesture, but I’d say to avoid it.
  • Don’t play with your fingers, or pick at them.
  • Don’t put your hands in your pockets.
  • Don’t hold a prop like a pen, unless you are planning to write on white board or butcher paper.
  • Don’t touch your face, unless there is a specific gesture, like holding your head in anguish.
  • Don’t put your hands behind your back. This can convey the idea that you have something to hide.

In a seated interview, you can still use your hands. Keep them on or above the table but try not to fidget with any objects or with your fingers. Don’t pound on the table, keep your hands up, roughly in the space between the bottom of your chin and the bottom of your rib cage, and not much beyond shoulder width apart, unless you are making a specific gesture that needs broader range of motion.

Practice your hand gestures. Over time you will develop a vernacular of hand gestures that are comfortable to you and can be deployed with far less thought.

Face: The way we use the muscles in our face can change the sound of our voice and convey a tremendous amount of information nonverbally. We make, and read micro-facial gestures that can influence other’s opinions of us. Before a presentation or interview you should stretch your face. Seriously. Open and close your mouth, smile, frown, etc… before you enter the room. Just like an athlete (or anyone) would stretch muscles before using them, stretching your face will ensure you have a broader range of motion and expression.

When you are speaking in front of larger audiences (more than a handful of people) it may appropriate to exaggerate your facial gestures.


Eyes: Make sustained eye contact. This doesn’t mean you can’t blink, or look away to “find your words” and then return back to your audience (a hard habit to break). It means do not strafe your audience with your eyes by constantly scanning the room. In an interview with one person, start your answers with eye contact, and finish them with eye contact. If, between the start and finish of an answer, you find yourself looking away, bring your eye contact back to your interviewer.

Think of your presentation like a series of short conversations between you and an individual member of your audience. Present a complete idea to an individual audience member before moving on to the next. You want to look at the individual long enough to gather some information from their face: are they paying attention? do they understand what you have just said? are they enjoying/agreeing with what you are saying? Then move to the next person. If you look away from an individual mid-thought, return to that individual to complete the thought.

With larger audiences, imagine a 5 pointed star in the audience, find the individual at the points, and make your eye contact with those individuals, the others nearest to them will think that you are looking at them too.

Try not to close your eyes for extended periods of time (longer than a long blink) and try not to stare at the ceiling, floor, or table in front of you for too long, especially when you are speaking.

Verbal Delivery

Your verbal delivery should be filled with variety. We can all recognize “monotone” speakers, but it is not just variety in tone that makes verbal content interesting, it is also variety in volume, pitch and speed. When most of us speak in conversation with people we know, we have no problem speaking with variety. It is very difficult to describe in writing how to add variety in verbal presentations. The best way to get better at is to practice and record yourself and listen to/watch those recordings, or to practice in front of people who will provide unvarnished feedback. Book a team room, invite some friends, and each practice.

I can’t underscore this enough, practicing is the key to developing the variation in pace, volume, pitch and tone, all of which can be used to emphasize key words or phrases that you want people to pay attention to.  When reading from notes or trying to recall a verbatim speech from memory, it is very difficult to add the variety on the fly. You must practice with the variety so that you are comfortable using it when the time comes to present.

If you are preparing remarks or writing a speech — even if you don’t plan to deliver it verbatim, or read from a prepared script — plan where you will raise or lower your pitch, or volume or slow down for emphasis, where you will use a different tone that is appropriate to the content. You can also practice hand gestures in this way.

Pauses – silent vs verbal pauses or filler words

Silent pauses, even for 1 second, are critically important for your audience to stay engaged. Silence will draw attention and allow you audience to process what you have just said. Silent pauses also signal to your audience that a new thought or idea is coming next.  They give you an opportunity to breathe.

Verbalized pauses, or filler words are the opposite. They don’t draw (the right kind of) attention, provide your audience with an opportunity to process what you have said, or signal a transition or conclusion of an idea, and they do not give you an opportunity to breathe. A short silence may feel uncomfortable to you as the speaker, but will barely be noticed by your audience.

For more see “Your Speaking Voice” from Toastmasters (PDF)


The most frequently feedback I give to people on the content of their presentations is that there are too many of the wrong type of details, and too much prologue/setup. This often happens because the presenter is thinking about their presentation from their perspective, not from their audience’s perspective. The same thing is true for interviews. You need to think about what you want your audience to take away from what you are saying, and this will help you focus on the right kinds of details.

What are the wrong types of details? Names of people that are only used once, or that no one in your audience will recognize.  You only need to actually introduce named characters if your story has enough characters that not naming them will become confusing. If you can instead say, “my wife” and “my boss” and “my coworker,” those will be easier identifiers to remember in a short speech. Details that don’t advance the story or help advance the key message may also be extraneous. These can be trickier to identify, because sometimes they provide the “color” to make the story more credible. Ask yourself, “If I omitted this detail, would my story still make sense, and be compelling to my intended audience?”

When you are answering questions in an interview, you want to make sure that your answer actually does answer the question and does so in a logical way where the elements of your answer build on each other. You may want to review the STAR model for crafting answers (Situation, Task, Action, Results) and prepare actual answers for common questions you can expect will be asked. This does not mean that you should memorize a verbatim answer, but if you are prepared with the anecdote you are going to use, and you understand what the interviewer is hoping to learn about you from your answer, you should be able to provide a clear and logical answer that also comes across as genuine and spontaneous.

Research from the Science of People (the organization referenced in the WaPo article on hand gestures) suggests that people make up their mind about a presentation in the first 7 seconds. You want to start of strong and clear. You also want to finish strong and clear.  Try not to start off a speech or presentation with a vocalized pause (“uhh”), or another filler word like “so” if that use is absent minded. You may have read an article in the NYT or heard a story on NPR (second half of artcile) about the perceived overuse of “so”. Also don’t end your speech with a trailing off, “so…”

I see many people have trouble with organization. You don’t need to tell a story in a completely chronological fashion, but the order in which you tell it needs to be logical. You can start at the beginning and tell it straight through, or you can start at the end, and then back up. You can even start in the middle, then back up, and finally land at the end. But you really don’t want to revisit any part (beginning, middle, or end) more than once (except maybe the middle, but don’t repeat the same things).

Repetition can also be a problem for some presenters. Certain details, or even exact phrases are repeated unnecessarily. Repetition can be used for effect (rhetorically) or to develop a rhythm, but that usually has its place in more formal speeches. You often see this in political speeches. In more informal presentations, or interviews, you want to try to avoid repeating phrases or details.

There are many resources available if you choose to dive deeper into the topic of presentation design, and some of them are available via links both in this article, and on my website.

You may also be interested in my Presentation Skills Resources list

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