Verbal Communication Skills
Verbal communication is the use of words to share information with other people. It can therefore include both spoken and written communication. However, many people use the term to describe only spoken communication. The verbal element of communication is all about the words that you choose, and how they are heard and interpreted.
This page focuses on spoken communication. However, the choice of words can be equally—if not more—important in written communication, where there is little or no non-verbal communication to help with the interpretation of the message.
What is Verbal Communication?
Verbal communication is any communication that uses words to share information with others. These words may be both spoken and written.
Communication is a two-way process
Communication is about passing information from one person to another.
This means that both the sending and the receiving of the message are equally important.
Verbal communication therefore requires both a speaker (or writer) to transmit the message, and a listener (or reader) to make sense of the message. This page discusses both parts of the process.
There are a large number of different verbal communication skills. They range from the obvious (being able to speak clearly, or listening, for example), to the more subtle (such as reflecting and clarifying). This page provides a summary of these skills, and shows where you can find out more.
It is important to remember that effective verbal communication cannot be fully isolated from non-verbal communication: your body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, for example.
Clarity of speech, remaining calm and focused, being polite and following some basic rules of etiquette will all aid the process of verbal communication.
In many interpersonal encounters, the first few minutes are extremely important. First impressions have a significant impact on the success of further and future communication.
When you first meet someone, you form an instant impression of them, based on how they look, sound and behave, as well as anything you may have heard about them from other people.
This first impression guides your future communications, at least to some extent.
For example, when you meet someone and hear them speak, you form a judgement about their background, and likely level of ability and understanding. This might well change what you say. If you hear a foreign accent, for example, you might decide that you need to use simpler language. You might also realise that you will need to listen more carefully to ensure that you understand what they are saying to you.
Of course your first impression may be revised later. You should ensure that you consciously ‘update’ your thinking when you receive new information about your contact and as you get to know them better.
Basic Verbal Communication Skills: Effective Speaking and Listening
Effective speaking involves three main areas: the words you choose, how you say them, and how you reinforce them with other non-verbal communication.
All these affect the transmission of your message, and how it is received and understood by your audience.
It is worth considering your choice of words carefully. You will probably need to use different words in different situations, even when discussing the same subject. For example, what you say to a close colleague will be very different from how you present a subject at a major conference.
How you speak includes your tone of voice and pace. Like non-verbal communication more generally, these send important messages to your audience, for example, about your level of interest and commitment, or whether you are nervous about their reaction.
There is more about this in our page on Non-Verbal Communication: Face and Voice.
Active listening is an important skill. However, when we communicate, we tend to spend far more energy considering what we are going to say than listening to the other person.
Effective listening is vital for good verbal communication. There are a number of ways that you can ensure that you listen more effectively. These include:
- Be prepared to listen. Concentrate on the speaker, and not on how you are going to reply.
- Keep an open mind and avoid making judgements about the speaker.
- Concentrate on the main direction of the speaker’s message. Try to understand broadly what they are trying to say overall, as well as the detail of the words that they are using.
- Avoid distractions if at all possible. For example, if there is a lot of background noise, you might suggest that you go somewhere else to talk.
- Be objective.
- Do not be trying to think of your next question while the other person is giving information.
- Do not dwell on one or two points at the expense of others. Try to use the overall picture and all the information that you have.
- Do not stereotype the speaker. Try not to let prejudices associated with, for example, gender, ethnicity, accent, social class, appearance or dress interfere with what is being said (see Personal Appearance).
There is more information in our pages on Listening Skills.
Improving Verbal Communication: More Advanced Techniques
There are a number of tools and techniques that you can use to improve the effectiveness of your verbal communication. These include reinforcement, reflection, clarification, and questioning.
Reinforcement is the use of encouraging words alongside non-verbal gestures such as head nods, a warm facial expression and maintaining eye contact.
All these help to build rapport and are more likely to reinforce openness in others. The use of encouragement and positive reinforcement can:
- Encourage others to participate in discussion (particularly in group work);
- Show interest in what other people have to say;
- Pave the way for development and/or maintenance of a relationship;
- Allay fears and give reassurance;
- Show warmth and openness; and
- Reduce shyness or nervousness in ourselves and others.
Questioning is broadly how we obtain information from others on specific topics.
Questioning is an essential way of clarifying areas that are unclear or test your understanding. It can also enable you to explicitly seek support from others.
On a more social level, questioning is also a useful technique to start conversations, draw someone into a conversation, or simply show interest. Effective questioning is therefore an essential element of verbal communication.
We use two main types of question:
Closed questions tend to seek only a one or two word answer (often simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’). They therefore limit the scope of the response. Two examples of closed questions are:
“Did you travel by car today?” and
“Did you see the football game yesterday?”
These types of question allow the questioner to remain in control of the communication. This is often not the desired outcome when trying to encourage verbal communication, so many people try to focus on using open questions more often. Nevertheless, closed questions can be useful for focusing discussion and obtaining clear, concise answers when needed.
Open questions demand further discussion and elaboration. They therefore broaden the scope for response. They include, for example,
“What was the traffic like this morning?”
“What do you feel you would like to gain from this discussion?”
Open questions will take longer to answer, but they give the other person far more scope for self-expression and encourage involvement in the conversation.
For more on questioning see our pages: Questioning and Types of Question.
Reflecting and Clarifying
Reflecting is the process of feeding back to another person your understanding of what has been said.
Reflecting is a specialised skill often used within counselling, but it can also be applied to a wide range of communication contexts and is a useful skill to learn.
Reflecting often involves paraphrasing the message communicated to you by the speaker in your own words. You need to try to capture the essence of the facts and feelings expressed, and communicate your understanding back to the speaker. It is a useful skill because:
- You can check that you have understood the message clearly.
- The speaker gets feedback about how the message has been received and can then clarify or expand if they wish.
- It shows interest in, and respect for, what the other person has to say.
- You are demonstrating that you are considering the other person’s viewpoint.
See also our pages on Reflecting and Clarifying.
A summary is an overview of the main points or issues raised.
Summarising can also serve the same purpose as ‘reflecting’. However, summarising allows both parties to review and agree the message, and ensure that communication has been effective. When used effectively, summaries may also serve as a guide to the next steps forward.
The way a communication is closed or ended will, at least in part, determine the way a conversation is remembered.
People use both verbal and non-verbal signals to end a conversation.
Verbal signals may include phrases such as:
“Well, I must be going,” and
“Thank you so much, that’s really helpful.”
Non-verbal conclusions may include starting to avoid eye contact, standing up, turning away, or behaviours such as looking at a watch or closing notepads or books. These non-verbal actions indicate to the other person that the initiator wishes to end the communication.
People often use a mixture of these, but tend to start with the non-verbal signals, especially face-to-face. On the telephone, of course, verbal cues are essential.
Closing an interaction too abruptly may not allow the other person to 'round off' what he or she is saying so you should ensure there is time for winding-up. The closure of an interaction is a good time to make any future arrangements. Last, but not least, this time will no doubt be accompanied by a number of socially acceptable parting gestures.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be a more effective communicator.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
Only part of the picture
It is vital to remember that any communication is made up of the sum of its parts.
Verbal communication is an important element, but only part of the overall message conveyed. Some research suggests that the verbal element is, in fact, a very small part of the overall message: just 20 to 30%. This is still, however, significant, and it is worth spending time to improve your verbal communication skills.