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3.4: Improving Verbal Communication

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    Learning Outcomes

    1. Examine ways to improve your verbal communication
    2. Realize the importance of checking for understanding.

    In this chapter, you have learned about several aspects of verbal communication. To be a successful communicator, it is extremely important that you also know how to use words in the most effective way.  In this segment, we will examine ways we can improve our verbal communication.

    The words we use and the grammatical structure of how we use those words can impact our communication success in school, work, and our personal lives. Here are some tips to help you improve your verbal skills.

    Choose Words Appropriate for Your Audience and the Communication Context

    Your word choice should be determined by the audience you are communicating with and the communication context.  Choose words that will have meaning to your listeners and that are appropriate for the situation. For example, using profanity in a classroom discussion might be understood by your listeners, but would be inappropriate for the setting.  Using “textspeak” on a class discussion board or an email to your instructor would be inadvisable because textspeak is too informal. Be aware that many words may have both denotative and connotative meanings, and that you need to choose and use words consciously and strategically. Always avoid biased language, which is inappropriate for all contexts. 

    Define Unfamiliar Terms

    Even when you are careful to craft your message clearly and concisely, some of your receivers may not understand every word you say or write. As a conscientious communicator, you know it is your responsibility to give listeners every advantage in understanding your meaning. Yet your presentation would fall flat if you tried to define each and every term—you would end up sounding like a dictionary! The solution is to be aware of any words you are using that may not be familiar to your receiver, and provide clues to meaning in the process of making and supporting your points. Give examples to illustrate each concept. Use parallels from everyday life. Rephrase unfamiliar terms in different words.

    Choose Specific, Concrete Words

    Think back to the ladder of abstraction discussed earlier in the chapter, and choose specific, concrete words that paint as vivid and accurate a mental picture as possible for your listeners. If you use language that is vague or abstract, your meaning may be lost or misinterpreted. Your paper or presentation will also be less dynamic and interesting than it could be.

    • Abstract:  Clumber spaniels are big dogs. 
    • Concrete: The Clumber Spaniel Club of America describes the breed as a “long, low, substantial dog,” standing 17 to 20 inches high and weighing 55 to 80 pounds.

    • Abstract:  It is important to each a healthy diet during pregnancy.
    • Concrete: Eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy products can improve your health during pregnancy and boost your chances of having a healthy baby. 

    Check for Understanding

    Check to see that your message is understood.  If you are giving a speech or are engaged in conversation, one way to do this is to stay alert to nonverbal feedback.  If your listeners are frowning or otherwise indicating confusion, it is important to check for understanding. Even if listeners are smiling and nodding at you when you talk, this does not necessarily mean that they comprehend. Let's say you are training a new employee for an important job responsibility.  Even though the employee might be nodding and smiling, it is still a good idea to ask questions to evaluate understanding.  But instead of asking a question like "Did you understand everything?" it would be more beneficial to say, "Let's go back through this so I can make sure I explained this clearly.  What did you understand me to say?"

    Chapter Summary

    In this chapter, we discussed the definition of verbal communication and the various rules that govern language.  To be an effective verbal communicator, it is important to understand that many words have both denotative and connotative meanings.  Some words, such as slang, jargon, idioms, and colloquialisms, should be avoided in academic writing or speeches because they are too informal and are likely to be confusing to some audience members. However, no matter how carefully you choose your words, the meaning of words can vary from person to person. ("Meanings are in people, not words.")

    The words you use can impact how others will see you and perhaps how they see one another. It is important to use language ethically.  Always avoid biased wording that stereotypes and demeans others.

    Finally, this chapter discusses ways of improving verbal communication to increase the likelihood that our messages will create the desired effect on our listener or reader.

    Key Terms

    • Abstract
    • Abstraction Ladder
    • Affiliation
    • Biased Language
    • Cliché
    • Colloquialism
    • Connotation
    • Denotation
    • Formal Language
    • Idiom
    • Informal Language
    • Jargon
    • Language
    • Personal Function
    • Racist Language
    • Sexism
    • Sexist Language
    • Slang


    • Go through the various key terms within this chapter. Did you know all of the definitions before reading this chapter? Which terms did you find difficult to understand? Why?
    • Read a speech from either Vital Speeches of the Day or American Rhetoric. After reading/watching a speech, find a video where the speaker was interviewed. Watch how the speaker sounds when both giving a speech and when answering questions. Analyze the speaker’s use of both language awareness and adaptation.

    3.4: Improving Verbal Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.