It is so very rare we manage to say what we mean. Those of us capable of accomplishing the feat are quoted in those snappy answer books.
But one St. Albert resident believes just a little practice can turn a tongue-tied person into a well-spoken individual.
Barbara May, a local communications coach, sounds as though she's reciting the plot line from Educating Rita. Give her people who consistently trip over their tongues of talk in circles for a half-hour before getting to the point and she'll whip them into pretty decent orators.
These days, May said, people just don't have time to listen to someone drone on and on.
"In the past, people may have been able to put up with rambling. People were so much in touch with the spoke word. But today we're just too swamped with images. We only see the 30 second clip." May said.
"So people need to communicate their ideas very quickly."
That doesn't mean we should all be reduced to jabbering fools who spout off fashionable buzzwords to cover for meaningful conversation.
A Changing art
May said the art of conversation hasn't died, it's just changed. She cites the classroom as a good laboratory to show how messages are sent and received.
"If teachers want their students to listen to them, they have to realize they are not only educating the students but also entertaining them," she said.
"They may not like that but they are competing with the likes of Nintendo and the video world."
Children learn to parrot phrases they hear on television before they learn to read. Teachers and anyone making a presentation to a group of people need to be aware of this fact.
A lot of people who are making a presentation or a sales pitch or who are going to emcee a weeding write down their idea. It all sounds very canned and staged and unnatural," she said.
In too many cases people don't get to the point quickly enough. If you're talking about coffee, for example, May advises against talking about sugar, creamers and stir sticks.
Getting your point across starts with the organization of thoughts. May uses the example of someone who has a lot of complaints about their job. Rather than storming in to the boss's office and ranting about a dozen different things, May suggests taking some time to map out what you intend to say.
"If you write down the main problems and then list all of the other issues, you can start to organize them with common threads. Now, instead of going into the boss's office with 50 million things that are bugging you, you can see the problem and you can break it down into some orderly fashion."
This is where things can get complicated. Just because you're organized doesn't mean people agree with you. May said it's important to remember communication involves more than one person. If the boss looks at you as though you're nuts, you can't simply carry on with you well-organized beef.
"If you go into the office and present the boss with A,B,C and D and the boss is thinking I still don't agree with A, when you get to D he hasn't heard the rest of what you've said. As you present your ideas, you need to look for feedback and respond to it," she said.
Most of the time, we say things pretty straightforwardly. But when stress comes into play, we end up sounding foolish. Job interviews are notorious settings for foot-in-mouth disease. May said preparation helps us because we can get our messages across in entertaining ways.
May suggest we all become good storytellers.
"In a job interview, you can let people know you strengths by telling them stories that show off your skills," May said.
"People remember stories."
But many people make the mistake of including irrelevant facts in their stories, May said. That problem can be remedied by telling a story over and over again, dropping more excess elements from it each time it is retold, rather than adding elaborate embellishments.
"If someone is going in for a job interview, that's the way to prepare. Think of your successes from the past and tell the stories of them to anyone who will listen. You need to work and rework and rework those stories; you tell them over and over and each time, you can weed out something that's irrelevant."
It's important to be colorful too, May observes.
"The monotone drone will kill you. You have to have some vocal variation. If you've ever listened to a conversation, not the words, but the sounds of the people talking, you can tell a good conversation from a bad one."
May claims 55 percent of information remembered by people comes from what they see; 38 percent is from vocal variations, and listeners recall a scant seven percent of information from the words themselves.
The pitfalls of poor communication, of course, are you don't get your message across or you have a credibility problem. If a person stiffens up and is overly nervous, an audience becomes distracted and tunes out.
"The same is true when the opposite happens, when you have someone is a super presenter. Salesmen sometimes make this mistake, They are all talk and no content and what do people think of them then? That they are fakes," she said.
May knows what she's talking about. The motivational speaker recently completed shooting a series of vignettes on interpersonal communication for ACCESS television. Made in the style of the Body Break commercials seen on CTV, May's spots - entitled May We Talk - give important tips on communication.
The series brings viewers through different topics in different settings, dealing with everything from gestures and visual aids to distracting habits. Through her company called Barbara May Productions, she has coached politicians and business leaders to help them learn to organize their thoughts and present their ideas. And in conjunction with her ACCESS spots, May will host two workshops on communications: Speak Up and Get Ahead on Oct. 2 and Controversy without Conflict on September 17.
People sometimes ask May about the necessity of her courses, if she isn't trying to teach long-distance runners how to walk. Her answer is, typically, brief and to the point.
Is this rocket science? No. It's all very simple. But people think that just because they've been speaking since they were two that they can communicate. In fact, like so many other skills, it's one you need someone to teach you."
By Richard Cairney
St. Albert & Sturgeon Gazette, Wednesday, September 11, 1996