Paralanguage is how we speak, and it is the most powerful form of non-verbal communication.
I truly believe there is one non-verbal communication type that has the most powerful impact and it's paralanguage. Paralanguage does not have anything to do with body language. Paralanguage is how you speak: the rate, tone/pitch, and volume/inflection of your speech, and of course, the dreaded use of filler words.
Mastering paralanguage allows you to have impact with your presentations and pitches, with your job interviews, while negotiating, and while you are networking with others. Its power and benefits are many, and they are extremely effective.
Benefits of paralanguage
Attention: As listeners we easily get bored and distracted. We zone out fast: with our significant others, at work, at church, and even just chatting with friends. Paralanguage used strategically helps to not be so boring and mundane--applied correctly it can catapult you into being an enthusiastic, adept speaker, holding every one's attention.
Break through perceptual screens: We are also bombarded daily with 1000's of messages and communications, and our brain has a filter called perceptual screens, where we block most of these out. Have you ever driven home, and not remember anything about driving, the songs on the radio, or billboards you might have seen? We all have, and it's our perceptual screens at work. Paralanguage helps break through these screens.
Professional Persuasion: To me, the biggest benefit of paralanguage is that it helps you to be professional and persuasive. Yes, what you say, your content, is important, but if you can deliver the information in an impactful way, the content explodes geometrically into the best possible context of professionalism.
Elements of paralanguage
Rate: If the rate or speed of your speech is steady, boredom sets in with the listener. Pick up the pace of speech when needed, and slow down strategically to emphasize a point. Better yet, as with all the elements of paralanguage, with interpersonal communication, you can customize your paralanguage for the specific person you speak with.
I have learned over the years, with colleagues, students, and clients who I must talk fast with, and when, and talk slower with, and when. Paralanguage customization of the speed at which you speak is an incredible asset.
Tone/pitch: Harken back to your college days and remember that dreadful, monotone professor. A steady, monotone voice with no variation basically puts people to sleep.
As a professor, this is one of the main areas of focus for my continual personal professional development.
I truly believe that just a little tone and pitch variation goes a long way. It's become one of my secret tools in the classroom (I guess it's not a secret after this!).
Whenever I sense students are drifting off, I will purposefully pause and tell a joke. Why? Because we are more natural with variations of tone and pitch when telling a joke. I might ask the students in a higher pitched tone, "hey, did you hear about the duck that walked into the pharmacy?" Then in a lower, sarcastic pitch/tone comes the punchline "Yeah, the duck walked up to the counter and said, give me some Chapstick and put it on my bill."
Volume and inflection: Think of the effectiveness of a projected assertive voice; then imagine times where a whisper can accentuate something important, confidential, sensitive, and/or secretive.
Strategically adjusting volume and using inflections helps you especially in storytelling. For example, you project loud and proud about the importance of leadership at your last position, using an inflection of emphasis as you describe your enthusiasm for leading and not bossing, or maybe you move closer, look the person in the eye, and softly speak about your sincere, caring human relations beliefs as a leader.
The dreaded filler words: Yes, they are dreaded and disruptive to listen to. You must edit out the um's, uh's, like's, and on and on. Using a lot of these fillers projects many negative things about you:
- You are not an accomplished speaker.
- You are unprepared.
- You are unorganized.
- You lack confidence.
Fillers are simply a crutch that has become a habit, allowing your brain to work as you organize your next thought. I am not innocent with these either--several years ago I went through a phase where during my lectures upon finishing a point, I would say okay. I did it constantly--ugh.
For that stretch - I became the okay professor. I would catch myself doing it and cringe. I worked to edit them out. Even though it started as a tactic to make sure students understood a point, it became a monstrous, Godzilla-like burden to the flow of my class.
Do yourself a big favor, bring premium, strategic paralanguage into your arsenal of communication tactics. Remember content is great but your content can rock the house with customized paralanguage tactics.
By Gary Golden