Career coach: The wrong tone can spoil the message

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, February 7, 2011

We all recognize that communication skills are critical to how effective we are in our professional and personal lives. Most of the time when we work on them, we focus on improving our oral communication or presentation skills, with a special focus on the content of our message. Sometimes we even work on improving our listening skills.

One part of communication we often do not examine is how we deliver our message or the tone we use when we are communicating with others. Yet, our tone might actually be more important than what we say. Ask anybody who listens to you.

Growing up, we all were probably told, "Don't use that tone of voice with me, mister (miss)!" Based on how we say something -- our inflection or emphasis on certain words -- and our body language and facial expressions, our tone conveys our attitude, whether we send a message of humor, anger, sarcasm, jealousy or sincerity.

When coaching executives, I will often discuss the feedback they have gotten from their co-workers and clients. Sometimes, they are surprised by the response. "I never meant my statement to be taken that way," they'll say. Why does this happen? Perhaps they are sending one message verbally, yet are sending another message based on their tone and nonverbals.

Ronni Burns, a communications expert who teaches in the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business MBA programs, points out in her book, "Communication Essentials," a few things we can do to improve our tone.

First, get feedback on how you sound. Is the message coming across the way you want? Is it coming across as confident as you would like? This is critical in today's competitive job market. You might look the part, but if you don't sound the part, that can be a turnoff for recruiters, employers and potential clients. Use a recorder to listen to how you sound.

Burns says most of us are appalled when we hear our voice for the first time. Listen to your voicemail message. It continually amazes me how many people have unprofessional voicemail messages and wonder why they can't get a job or have trouble retaining clients. Carefully consider it from the perspective of how others hear it -- a pleasant or confident voice or a tired, bored voice? Burns suggests listening for the following things:

Tone -- What does the tone of your voice sound like? Does it reflect confidence? Strength? Assurance? Perhaps your tone reflects fear? Boredom? Immaturity?

Voice inflections -- When speaking and thinking about the key points you want to emphasis, make sure the inflections of your voice do just that. Inflection alone can change the meaning of a sentence. Do your inflections have patterns? Some people use a questioning tone that suggests they lack confidence in what they are saying.

Pitch of your voice -- Does your voice go up and down at the right times or inappropriate times?

Accent -- Do you have an accent that makes it difficult for people to understand you or might bias them against you?

Pace of your speech -- How fast do you speak and how appropriate is your speed to your audience?

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