You’re in a room of people saying words that probably make sense. But you feel like something flew right over your head.
Or you’re the speaker and having difficulty getting your point across.
Or in the middle of hashing out a difficult conversation when suddenly clarity sets in for everyone. (Hooray!)
Reactions to communication can run the gamut from confusing and frustrating to enlightening and empowering. Here's how you can improve your public communication skills.
What is the Public Communication Lab?
Michael Easter: It’s a lab in the sense that it’s a group of people trying to accomplish the goal of improving public communication at UNLV. Both of us are interested and our backgrounds are in taking really complex information, especially science and health, and putting that into something the average person can understand. The lab is taking both of our expertises and using it to help UNLV do the same. We got the message that there was essentially a need for that, in a variety of ways. Things like helping people or departments who are dealing with the media, giving presentations, writing proposals that will be read by someone who doesn’t have technical expertise in [the subject] area.
Emma Frances Bloomfield: I think that’s a great description. The lab is really a joint endeavor between journalism & media studies and communication studies to combine strengths in communications and help people based on questions like: How are you communicating? How are you adapting to an audience? What channels are you using? What are the particular needs of a communication situation that we want to prep people to respond to? My background is primarily in communicating science and how to have effective science communication, but an extension of that is any technical topic for which there’s expert knowledge. How do we get that knowledge into the hands of people who can use it in a way that’s easy to understand and enact?
Can you improve by practicing speeches or presentations on your own?
Bloomfield: It certainly is possible, but it would be easier to interact with people and get a sense of these things you think in theory might work, how they actually look in practice. So something that Michael advises people to do is to film themselves giving a speech. I might think, “Oh this hand gesture is going to be really impactful,” but then if you’re in the audience maybe it looks weird or it’s distracting. Self-reflexivity is easier when you have other people around, but I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from self-study either.
Easter: Practicing something in front of people puts a little more pressure on. The presentation we just gave to the law school, I ended it with that Mike Tyson quote, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s like, this all looked great in front of the mirror, but then you got in front of 100 people and, “Uh oh, what did I come here to say?” I do think it’s worth having that feedback from people. Everyone needs a coach if they want to get significantly better at something.
How easy is it to be misunderstood when you’re communicating, and how can we avoid it?
Bloomfield: You will always be misunderstood. The idea that communication from a sender to receiver is 100 percent information transfer is impossible, right? Anytime you use a symbol, anytime you say a word, anytime you communicate something, there’s the possibility for misinterpretation. A strategy for making sure you’re being interpreted correctly, your meaning is being transmitted effectively, is to think about clarity: simplifying terms, giving lots of examples, defining things, any kind of strategy that will make the message as clear as possible. Part of that is audience adaptation. So if I use an example of something an audience is not necessarily familiar with, then that won’t help them understand the message. Think about what connects with them, what they are likely to know.
There’s a common saying out there about people being more fearful of public speaking than death. What tips do you have for people who are scared of public speaking?
Easter: I think that’s ingrained in us. That’s where practice comes in and getting feedback. It’s almost like if you wanted to be really fit, you wouldn’t just go to the gym one time, right? You’d get in a lot of reps and time, and I think people improve that way. The way to simulate that before a presentation is to practice it as many times as possible. They’ve done analysis of TED speakers, and the ones that are most viewed they’ll follow up and ask, “How many times did you practice that?” And they’ll say like over 200 times. But when they present, it feels like, “Oh this person is just having a conversation with me.” That is not an accident. That is planned and practiced.
Bloomfield: I’d also say a way to be more confident is to think about whomever you’re speaking to as being fundamentally on your side. If you’re presenting in front of a classroom, your classmates don’t want you to fail. Your professor doesn’t want you to fail. If you’re speaking at a conference, people want to hear your voice and your research, they don’t want you to mess up.
Jargon seems to be a big issue in professional speeches. Do you have any tips to effectively eliminate jargon in presentations?
Bloomfield: In eliminating jargon, there are a few different strategies that we propose in our training. There are simple things like defining the term up front so you can use it again later on in the presentation. You can think about using a synonym. You can think about telling a story that explains the concept. You can use an analogy comparing the concept to something else. I think avoiding jargon is overall a good practice, but there might be a specific term that you really need to use, or it communicates something more precisely or specifically than a synonym. You want to make sure that however you use the term, you’re making it as accessible as possible.
How can we overcome political disagreements in an election year?
Bloomfield: The primary strategy I propose in my research in general is to separate the person from the belief or the disagreement. It’s very easy for us to sit here and say, “Oh, we disagree on this thing.” But I can still value the person and the engagement with the person. I think oftentimes our beliefs and opinions get so tied into who we are and our identities, which of course makes sense, but then you don’t want to see someone disagreeing with your point of view as an attack on you personally. And know that it’s OK to disagree. People are going to disagree on these really fundamental issues that divide us. Having something be effective communication doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve always reached consensus or agreement.
In our daily lives, are most people effective communicators?
Easter: Yes. I think it’s when you get more into complex information when there starts to be breakdowns. On a basic level, everyone gets through their daily life. It’s just when we try to have larger discussions that sometimes things can break down.
How can vague or ineffective communication affect our relationships?
Bloomfield: The first thing that comes to mind is social media because sometimes it strips those nonverbal cues like tone of voice and emotion and sarcasm. Sometimes if you’re communicating in a space that doesn’t have that extra contextual information, you’re more likely to be misunderstood. Something meant as a joke or sarcasm could really hurt someone’s feelings or be taken quite offensively, so I think that could potentially damage those relationships.
Speaking of which, do you have any tips for social media communication?
Easter: Clarity reigns supreme. I’ve heard Twitter compared to driving in a car when somebody cuts you off in traffic. You’re in this little box, and you behave in a way that you would never behave if that person were face to face with you. Pausing to think, “This is a human on the other end of this. Would I behave this way if we were face to face?” is really important. The mediums in a lot of ways are not effectively designed for communication.
What is the future of the Public Communication Lab?
Bloomfield: The hope is to do more workshops throughout the university and even in the local community, to do more research projects and expanding so that we have more students able to work for us. We’re hoping to also develop grant programs for people doing research in areas related to translation and public communication. The lab is an interdisciplinary endeavor. We have a lot of big-picture goals. We wanted to take the strengths of each of the departments and each of our backgrounds and see them as aligned. Together by looking at a problem from these different perspectives, you reach that richer conclusion. It really aligns with the mission of Greenspun and the college, which is to think about ways to tackle social issues and urban problems.