“How can I sound more conversational?”

How to Sound More Conversational in Your Speech

Just the other day, someone asked me, “David, how can I sound more conversational when I speak, like you?”

I was flattered, and pleased that the person noticed. I do strive for a conversational feel to my talks, and I appreciate knowing that that comes through. I want each listener to feel I am talking with him or her, not merely talking at them. So when someone asks me that question, I know I am correctly applying skills I have learned from other, more experienced speakers.

I also know that I owe the questioner an answer. So here is my attempt to share with you the four most important tools you can add to your toolbox in order to sound more conversational when you speak.

The first is to include your audience using “you” language. How many times have you heard a presenter start with, “Today, I want to share with you…”? I am always eager to share a tip with such speakers: The audience doesn’t care what you want to do! Early in your speech, each person in that audience is thinking, “What’s in it for me?” So tell them! Start with something like, “Today, you are going to pick up four tools for sounding more conversational.” Eliminate the “I want” part. Make it about them.

When you use “you” language, especially early on, you are drawing your audience in and giving them a promise of what is to come—a promise that is about them, not about you. Your result? A stronger connection with your audience than you may have thought possible.

Count the uses of “you” and “your” in that preceding paragraph and you will get an idea of what I mean.

The second tool, related to the first, is to ask your audience “you-focused” questions. This makes the speech feel like more of a dialogue, and it works whether you expect a response or simply make the questions rhetorical. For example, when I talk about the disappointment I experienced from giving a poorly designed training, before telling what happened next I ask my audience, “Has that ever happened to you? You pour heart and soul into a presentation, only to find it doesn’t engage your audience?” As soon as they nod their heads, they are re-engaged in conversation with me. They will want to know what I did next so they know what they can do when it happens to them.

But asking questions is no good unless you give your audience time to answer them in their heads, and that brings us to the third tool: pauses. Too many speakers try to rush through a presentation in order to get more words in. In the words of Craig Valentine, “When you squeeze more content in, you squeeze your audience out.” It is essential that you avoid the temptation to breeze right through what you plan to say. Pauses are where listening gets a break so comprehension can take over.

Nowhere is the need for pauses more evident than when you ask your audience a question. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with someone who never pauses in their monologue? You would probably get frustrated, give up, and look for another conversation partner. Don’t be that speaker! To sound conversational, you must invite your listeners into dialogue with you by pausing to let them respond—even if their response takes place only inside their heads.

There is one more technique you must master if you are to sound truly conversational in your speaking. To understand it, put yourself in the role of an audience member. You are in an auditorium full of people, and you are listening to a speaker. When that speech is over, do you want to think, “Wow, that speaker was really talking to me!” or do you want to think, “I’m so glad I was part of this large group”? I am willing to bet you’d prefer the former.

And yet, so many speakers use phrases and statements that serve to remind you that you are part of a larger group. “Ladies and gentlemen” comes to mind. Even attempts to be “you” focused can come across like, “I bet some of you are thinking…” or “Everyone here today can…” No. There is no “some of you” and there is no “everyone.” There is only “you” as in, “I bet you are thinking” or “Today you can…”

Thanks to the quirk of the English language that uses “you” for both singular and plural, you can use “you” as if you are speaking to one audience member while addressing everyone. Craig Valentine calls this practice, “Speak to one but look to all.”

When you start out with something like, “How many of you have sent or received a family Christmas letter?” (as I heard recently) that word “many” says to the audience, “You are many; I am one.” Not the most engaging subtext! Instead, simply ask, “Have you ever sent or received a family Christmas letter?” The plural “you” includes everyone while sounding like a singular “you.”

So there you have it: four tools for sounding more conversational. Use more “you” language. Ask “you-focused” questions. Leave more space for your listeners to answer, even if only in their heads. And “speak to one, but look to all” by using the singular “you” and no collective nouns to refer to your audience.

You may find audience members asking you, “How do you sound so conversational?” Now you will know what to tell them.

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