Say what? Featured

9:49am EDT July 22, 2002

Bill Leiter, senior vice president at Bank One, recognized the dangers rapid growth could create even before the company’s 1998 merger with First Chicago NBD Corp.

Leiter, who prior to the merger was also the company’s controller, saw his accounting employees relying more and more on phone calls rather than in-person meetings to communicate with each other and with customers.

Before the situation resulted in miscommunications because body language couldn’t be read or expressed by phone, Leiter sought help.

“Some people can project through body language things that maybe get lost in a pure phone conversation,” he explains. “They don’t come across the same, and I was concerned that people who I knew to be very effective in their jobs would be less effective because they didn’t come across well on the phone and people would misread them.”

Leiter also wanted to ensure those managers understood how to evaluate the response of their listeners.

In May 1998, Leiter gathered his 60-some managers for a training session and added a three-hour presentation by Mimi Gelacek and Allana Salimbene, speech-language pathologists and corporate trainers at the Columbus Speech and Hearing Center, where Leiter is a board member.

The managers learned tips on subtleties of speech, such as the impact of posture on the speaking voice, and the more obvious aspects of tone, loudness, rhythm, rate, diction and word choice.

“About 70 percent of our waking hours are spent in verbal communication skills, but talking and listening are the least trained of verbal communication,” Gelacek says. “We get much more in school of reading and writing.”

Research shows that listeners make judgments of people based on the sound of their voices, Gelacek adds.

“I think the person who has an edge on communication can have an edge on competition as well,” she says. “The customer judges the company on the person who represents that company; for example, the executive or CEO who can present in a clear, interesting, interpersonal manner in front of a group. You can have the facts, you can have the information, you can be very intelligent, but it’s another matter to come across effectively.”

The Columbus Speech and Hearing Center offers free telephone assessments to discuss communication, training needs and options. Individual assessments at the work site cost $200 and result in an analysis of the person’s communication needs, goals of training and estimated length of training. Rates for on-site training range from $100 to $2,500, depending on the number of people and the type and length of training.

Gelacek has worked, for example, with an attorney who needed to polish communication skills for the courtroom, a financial consultant who had a stuttering problem, a minister who needed help modifying her foreign accent so her congregation could better understand her and a customer service representative whose exceptionally loud voice was starting to alienate co-workers and turn off customers.

Gelacek gives these tips regarding speaking and listening skills:

Drink lots of water — about eight glasses a day. Water hydrates the vocal mechanism, preventing your voice from becoming hoarse or raspy.

Breathe. “Believe it or not, most speakers, especially in the business world, are trying to get in as many words as possible before they take in a breath,” Gelacek says. “That makes it sound rough and guttural. Replenish before you run out.”

Open your mouth more when talking. “We have a lot of stress in the business world today, and people have a tendency to keep their jaws tight,” says Gelacek, adding that an open mouth reduces tension, makes your speech more distinct and can improve voice projection.

Watch your inflection. If you’re making a statement, your pitch should drop at the end of your sentence. If your pitch goes up, it can make you sound unsure.

Know your listener’s filters. “We all listen through filters — values, beliefs and convictions, those kinds of things,” Gelacek says. “Unless we’re tuned into those elements in a listener, we might present ourselves in a way that is going to turn our listeners off.”

Ask for feedback at regular intervals. Particularly on the phone, this is a tool to use to make sure your listener is paying attention and understanding your message.

Watch body language — both your own and that of your listener. Eye contact is important. Lean in toward the person to whom you’re speaking — that denotes a sense of interest. Be careful, however; the amount of distance acceptable between two people can vary with different cultures. Also beware of those who nod their head as they listen.

“A lot of times people are doing that and their minds may be someplace else,” she says, noting that the telephone tip of asking for feedback can work for an in-person conversation, as well. “If they’re moving away,” Gelacek says, “they’re probably ready to end the communication.”

How to reach: Columbus Speech and Hearing Center, 263-5151 (voice) or 263-2299 (TTY)

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.