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How to sway decision-makers with your verbal advice



You have spent many hours working on a project. Before proceeding, you need a decision – perhaps you are asking for more money, a policy change, or permission to take a different approach. You have written a comprehensive report to explain the basis for your recommendations.


But now it’s time to front up and speak to that advice. Maybe you have been asked to give a full presentation or briefly summarise your advice. For many people, this is quite daunting. The skill sets required to write a report and present a report are overlapping but not the same.


Firstly, some skills are important for your written advice but even more for your verbal advice. These include the ability to:

  • explain complex ideas or concepts as simply as possible

  • highlight the most important aspects of your advice

  • set out your thoughts using crystal clear logic.

You might be able to get away with a report that includes a lot of detail or is a bit convoluted – especially as some people probably won’t read it properly! But you won’t be able to get away with a waffly or confusing presentation.


Secondly, some skills are not required for your written advice but are critical for giving verbal advice. These include the ability to:

  • engage an audience by delivering your advice confidently and professionally

  • manage nervousness

  • think on your feet and respond to questions or challenges to your advice.

These types of skills are not taught to the same degree as written communication skills, and generally, it is just assumed we will acquire them – but not everyone does!


So, what can you do to improve your verbal advice skills?


Prepare

Take the time to figure out what you are going to say. Preparing doesn’t mean simply re-reading your report to remind yourself what you said! You may well find yourself tongue-tied or waffling if this is the extent of your preparation. Your advice needs to be clear, compelling, and to the point – and that doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by carefully crafting your key messages – a process that can take time.


Your report may contain a lot of background or contextual information. Reduce, or remove this from your verbal advice. Instead, you should focus on your recommendations and the basis for the recommendations.


Preparation includes spending time thinking about the types of questions that decision-makers might ask you. Some people dread questions – especially if they are a little unsure of their subject matter. Anticipating questions and deciding how to respond is a worthwhile use of your time.


Ask work colleagues to help you with this – especially if you don’t know your audience well. Ask others for their views on who is likely to challenge you and how.


I have had people tell me that they don’t always have the time to prepare. My response is that inadequate preparation will likely lead to requests for more information, rework, and project delays. All of which take more time!


Practise

Have you ever imagined yourself saying something and then had an out-of-body experience when you start to speak? Somehow the words don’t sound as convincing as you expected. Perhaps you hear yourself rambling. It can be very disconcerting!


You can reduce the risk of this happening by practising before you speak to others. And I mean, practise out loud. You might feel silly talking to yourself, but it really helps! You are not aiming to memorise your presentation. Instead, you want to be very familiar with your key messages and their sequencing. It is possible to over-practice. I recommend 3-5 times for a five-minute presentation.


How you do this is a matter of personal preference. You could talk to a mirror, your dog, your partner, or to an empty space. I like to imagine my audience in front of me, so I don’t use a mirror.


Practice the answers to questions as well. I also recommend doing this for job interviews. I improved my performance at interviews dramatically when I stopped imagining what I would say and started trying it out aloud instead! It is much easier to spot a weakness in your answer when you force yourself to verbalise it.


Don’t panic if your presentation doesn’t come out exactly as you intended. Dale Carnegie once said,

“There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practised, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”

Seek feedback

Most of us are not great judges of our public speaking performance. Fortunately, people usually come across better than they imagine. Nervousness is not as apparent to the audience as it is to you as a speaker. Feedback from others that they didn’t notice your nerves can be reassuring!


But feedback can also help you improve your performance. Perhaps you have a distracting habit that you are not aware of. Or you think you are speaking loudly, but others are struggling to hear you.


You can get feedback by asking someone else to observe your performance, having your presentation videoed, or practising in front of work colleagues before the big day! If you really want to improve your delivery, join a Toastmasters club. Feedback is an integral part of Toastmasters, and you will receive wonderfully supportive and insightful feedback if you regularly attend and present at Toastmaster meetings.


I recommend watching yourself on video if possible. I video my clients and consistently receive feedback that they appreciated having the video. It can be cringeworthy, but if you can get past this you will learn a lot! Most people hate the sound of their own voice. I suggest that you watch yourself twice – the first time with the sound off. You can focus on watching your body language and posture rather than worrying about your voice!

 

In summary, if your role involves providing advice to decision-makers, you need to be able to back up a well-written report with excellent verbal communication skills. Many of the skills involved in giving verbal advice are different to those required to write well.

You can develop the ability to present confidently and convincingly by preparing well, practising your key messages and asking for feedback.



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