In the pecking order of communication, face-to-face will always reign supreme, because the evaluation centers of the brain are treated to all the subtle signals they need in order to judge whether the other person can be trusted. Next in line is voice-to-voice, with text bringing up the rear (which is suited to serve the brain’s needs only slightly better than semaphore (if you are younger than 50, Google it).
Face to face meetings are a treat for the brain, but nearly impossible when your offices are spread across the universe. So how do you ensure a good outcome when all you have is your voice? Let me offer some tips. These tips are based on research that has discovered that the brain takes a great many cues about how to think from how the body is moving.
Rule 1: Stand
Thinking quickly and creatively while sitting certainly isn’t impossible, but sitting for too long signals to the brain that it is time to rest. Standing while on the phone can energize your thinking and amp up your communication. If standing is impossible, at least lean forward so your back isn’t resting against the chair.
Rule B: Pace
The brain actually thinks fastest when the body is engaged in repetitive, rhythmic movement. This is why taking a walk is a great way to break loose mental log-jams. If you pace while speaking on the phone, your mental energy level will increase; making it easier to listen, respond, and engage.
Rule Next: Smile
Phone sales professionals and customer service reps have long heard the adage, A smile can be heard, but smiling while on the phone goes far beyond simply having a pleasant demeanor. This is because of the two-way path of communication between the brain and the body. The brain may tell the body how to move (I feel happy, so let’s have the facial muscles smile), but the body also tells the brain how to think; which is why, if you force a smile, it is impossible to stay angry.
Positive facial expressions affect both the speaker and the listener. When you smile while speaking, your facial muscles signal to the brain to convey a positive message. Smiling has also been shown to increase creative thinking. And studies have shown that the listener can actually hear if the speaker is smiling, even without visual confirmation. The brain’s auditory cortex is highly sensitive, and designed to pick up subtle signals in the speaker’s voice. We are not consciously aware of this process, but it greatly affects our decision-making.
Rule After Next: Gesture
When you gesture while speaking, your physical movements not only reinforce your thinking, but gesturing helps your brain communicate with more impact. Gesturing also improves your word choice and the timbre of your voice. A good friend of mine, John, is a voice-over professional. He gets paid to lend his voice to TV commercials and corporate training videos. He is one of the top three voice-over talents in Minnesota. I have seen other voice-over talents during recording sessions, but wanted to see why John was hired so much more than the competition, so he allowed me to watch a recording session for a TV commercial. While I sat with the sound engineer, John was positioned in a glass recording booth. The first thing I noticed was that, while other people simply held the script by hand and spoke into the microphone, John made sure there was a music stand to hold his script; leaving his hands free. The other thing I noticed was that, even though John was speaking only to a microphone, he gestured wildly.
By all appearances, you would have thought John was speaking to a large audience. I asked the sound engineer if this was common and he said, “No. Most people just stand there and talk, but that’s why this guy is one of the top paid people in the business. As a recording engineer, I have heard hundreds of people doing voice-overs, and the ones that use their body just sound better.” When I asked John about it later, he said, “Yeah, it took me a while to be comfortable using my body when I spoke. At first, it feels kind of silly.” I asked, “How did you get over feeling goofy?” He said, “When I realized that, with at least fifty people auditioning for the same commercial, I always get the job. Believe me, taking money to the bank takes away feelings of doubt.”
Rule Last: Don’t Sound Like You Are On the Phone
A work environment changes the nature of our speech, but being on the phone takes away even more of our “vocal humanity.” This is why it is so important to be conversational. One of the most damaging signals to the listener’s brain is when it hears disingenuous tone of voice. Phone conversations, especially at work, can sound false because we lose much of the up-and-down pitch and vocal variety that occurs during normal speech. We level off our vocal pattern, taking away its vitality and life; and also its believability.
Having a wireless headset allows you to stand, pace, gesture, and converse more easily than being tethered to a handset. If your job requires phone interaction, invest in technology that will help you perform your best. And, if you feel silly using your body while on the phone, just think of John taking his checks to the bank while his competition is still waiting for the next audition.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.