You Can Walk the Walk, But Can You Talk the Talk?

3 tips to improve our verbal communication to clients

“I know you had the right intentions, but the way it came across to me was different…”

Ever heard that before? I certainly have—many times! Whether in my professional life (I work for a public relations agency) or in my personal life (read: marriage), I’m often that person trying to do the right thing, but slipping up in how I communicate it, meaning the person on the receiving end doesn’t realize my good intentions.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer that actions speak louder than words, and that in life, it isn’t so much what you say as what you do. After 20 years in the workplace, however, I’ve learned—the hard way, for sure—that sometimes it is what you say, and it is how you say it, that can make the difference between a happy or a worried client, between a long-leash or a micromanaging manager, or between a trusting or a suspicious colleague.

In the end, I’ve come to learn that correctly “talking the talk” has its rightful, important place in a services business. It’s a skill too often overlooked as worthy of attention and development. But at work especially, image and perception can be everything.

Personal example: While working at a PR agency in a big city early in my career, I committed a verbal faux pas during an onsite meeting with our most important client. I was the day-to-day account leader so with all the “powers that be” in the room—both from our side and the client’s side—I directed the meeting with my boss present. At one point in the conversation our client contact said something like, “Well, that’s part of the project we may have to leave out of the scope of work.” To which I immediately countered, “Unless you pay us more!” Silence. Then a chuckle. And then the conversation shifted gears.

Later that day my boss called me into her office. “Never do that again,” she said flatly. It wasn’t just that I had “spoken my mind” about needing more budget, as this is a reasonable request when there is more work required than budget allows. It was how I said it, in a flippant way, that basically got me demoted from being the lead on that account.

At times like these I remember a sign on the desk of my ninth grade English teacher: “Be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth into gear.” When I first read that sign, it didn’t matter that I was still 14 and a year away from learning to drive a stick shift. I understood the idea. And I haven’t forgotten it.

If I haven’t forgotten that lesson, why it is that I (and many others, I’m sure) continue to either a) say the wrong thing, or b) say the right thing in the wrong way? The simple answer is that we don’t realize what we’re doing is wrong, we get complacent with what we do right, and we don’t practice and improve our skills. To step out of our comfort zone and improve our verbal communication to clients, here are three tips I’ve found helpful:

  1. Slow down. We tend to speak too quickly when we’re nervous or unprepared. Says one article in Fast Company: “Speaking slower not only improves how well your audience comprehends what you’re saying, but it also makes you sound more confident and in control.” My current manager is an excellent example of this. It’s not that he’s a naturally slow speaker, but when interfacing with the client, he deliberately speaks more slowly, pauses after expressing an idea, and doesn’t try to fill in the gaps of silence unnecessarily. I’m learning much from his example of slowing down. (Interesting how those unhurried in speech tend to be unhurried in life, too—a side benefit to speaking slower!)
  2. Speak confidently. Part of being an honest person is showing self-deprecation, fully admitting when we’re unsure of what we’re talking about, being ourselves and “thinking out loud,” right? Well, yes, those attributes are all fine and good—in the right place and time. In a professional setting, however, when you’re being paid for your consulting and expert advice, assertiveness is imperative. As one website puts it, “Your word choice, the tone of your voice, your body language, and your ability to make direct eye contact with your audience” all add to your ability to speak with confidence. I once failed a job interview, or so I was told afterwards, because I did not look my multiple interviewers in the eye. Dumbfounding as it was to me then, that lesson about the importance of eye contact to confidence has been more meaningful to me as time has gone on.
  3. Practice with a recorder. I feel strongly that improving the way we speak to a client can only happen by practice—and not just any practice but “deliberate practice,” as my former mentor and VitalSmarts founder Joseph Grenny calls it. Recently I learned the power of practicing with a recorder, unintentionally. As you probably know, smartphones have recording applications. Use them! When I discovered my iPhone’s Voice Memo app and started using it as a note-taking device for client meetings, I realized while listening to the playback that I could communicate more effectively in certain interactions with clients. Recording a client conversation, then, is valuable for more than just the content. It’s valuable as a personal practice and learning tool. And using a recorder is better than practicing in the mirror because it’s real, live client interaction—interaction you can’t fake! By doing this I’ve noticed myself becoming more articulate in conversations with our clients.

As mentioned at the outset, when it comes to client interaction—as in all areas of our life—doing the right thing for the right reason is paramount. While we hope we are judged by the content of our character and by what’s in our heart before anything else, in the ever-important business setting—particularly as a paid marketing consultant—what we say and how we say it can have significant consequences.

And even if we do feel like we’re a good “talker,” we can all improve our verbal communication skills in some way. A good place to start is to simply slow down and think before we speak, to speak with confidence, and to practice with a recorder.

In many of our interactions in life, talk may be cheap, but in the business world, using the right words in the right way can often translate to higher salaries, bigger contracts, better client and personal relations and a more stable career. And if those are the results of some minor improvements to our verbal skills, now you’re talking!