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AT THE OFFICE: If, when you start to talk, your listeners start to doze ...

Question: When I talk in meetings or even one-on-one with people, I get the feeling that they're checking out. What can I do to be a more effective communicator?...

Question: When I talk in meetings or even one-on-one with people, I get the feeling that they're checking out. What can I do to be a more effective communicator?

Answer: Examine your behavior, find a role model and consciously practice to improve your communication skills.

The inner game

Communicating effectively is not just about how you send out information; true communication is a two-way street. Before you invest in your behavior, develop your vision of effective communication.

Learn from people with outstanding communication skills. One person may be an exceptional listener. Another may excel at making points concisely. Draw on these examples to define your goals.

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Give yourself a reality check. When someone's attention drifts, notice what's happening in your conversation. Perhaps you've been rambling or doing a monologue. Try to catch yourself and see if you exhibit any patterns that are nervous habits.

Besides looking at how you say things, examine what you say. Are you offering information of substance? People will be less attentive if you don't have a track record of bringing something valuable to the conversation.

Don't just look inward; outside feedback will be a big help. Ask some folks you trust in different areas of your life to be your observers. At work, select colleagues who see you in action in a variety of settings to gather data on your communication skills. Ask them to be blunt, because you won't be able to improve unless you know the real story. Don't take it personally or shut them down; candid feedback is a real gift.

The outer game

Changing habits can be difficult, and relearning communication skills is no exception. Start by making a list of specific behaviors you'd like to change. Here's an example: Replace the general goal of being a better communicator with resolving that, for the next six weeks, you'll ask questions before expressing your opinion.

Once you've set your goal, create some structure for working on it. Keep a log of successes and times you missed your objective. Reflect daily on your progress. Give yourself credit for your successes, and notice where you slip, learning from it without dwelling on it.

Learn to read your audience more effectively. Before you go into a meeting or start a conversation, assess the level of detail that is needed. Audiences higher up in the organization generally need less detailed information. Excessive detail is one of the primary causes of eye glazing, so know what is needed and provide that -- and no more unless asked.

Let others know your goal so they'll help keep you on track. Have some allies who'll nudge you if you're losing your audience. Also, have some cues for yourself and some ways to interrupt yourself. Use the WAIT ("Why Am I Talking?") technique. Develop some humorous ways to catch yourself, something like, "Oops, there I go again. ... What do you think?" Critique the content of what you've said to be sure that you're not just filling the air with fluff.

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The last word

Becoming a better communicator takes practice and commitment, but the people around you will appreciate it and you'll all benefit.

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