Oral communication describes any type of interaction that makes use of spoken words, and it is a vital, integral part of the business world, especially in an era dubbed the information age. "The ability to communicate effectively through speaking as well as in writing is highly valued, and demanded, in business," Herta A. Murphy, Herbert W. Hildebrandt, and Jane Thomas wrote in their book Effective Business Communications. "Knowing the content of the functional areas of business is important, but to give life to those ideas—in meetings or in solo presentations—demands an effective oral presentation." The types of oral communication commonly used within an organization include staff meetings, personal discussions, presentations, telephone discourse, and informal conversation. Oral communication with those outside of the organization might take the form of face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, speeches, teleconferences, or videoconferences.
Conversation management skills are essential for small business owners and managers who often shoulder much of the burden in such areas as client/customer presentations, employee interviews, and conducting meetings. For oral communication to be effective, it should be clear, relevant, tactful in phraseology and tone, concise, and informative. Presentations or conversations that bear these hallmarks can be an invaluable tool in ensuring business health and growth. Unclear, inaccurate, or inconsiderate business communication, on the other hand, can waste valuable time, alienate employees or customers, and destroy goodwill toward management or the overall business.
The public presentation is generally recognized as the most important of the various genres of oral business communication. As is true of all kinds of communication, the first step in preparing a public speech or remarks is to determine the essential purpose/goal of the communication. As Hildebrandt, Murphy, and Thomas note, business presentations tend to have one of three general purposes: to persuade, to inform or instruct, or to entertain. Out of the purpose will come the main ideas to be included in the presentation. These ideas should be researched thoroughly and adapted to the needs of the audience.
The ideas should then be organized to include an introduction, a main body or text, and a summary or conclusion. Or, as the old adage about giving speeches goes, "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them." The introduction should grab the listener's interest and establish the theme of the remainder of the presentation. The main body should concentrate on points of emphasis. The conclusion should restate the key points and summarize the overarching message that is being conveyed.
Visual aids can be a useful component of some presentations. Whether they are projected from a PC, displayed on chalkboards, dry-erase boards, or flip charts visual aids should be meaningful, creative, and interesting in order to help the speaker get a message across. The key to successful use of visual aids is that they should support the theme of the presentation, aid in its transmittal but do so without detracting by being sloppy, complicated, or even too entertaining.
Once the presentation has been organized and the visual aids have been selected, the speaker should rehearse the presentation out loud and revise as needed to fit time constraints, and to assure thorough coverage of the main points. It may help to practice in front of a mirror or in front of a friend in order to gain confidence. A good oral presentation will include transitional phrases to help listeners move through the material, and will not be overly long or technical. It is also important for the speaker to anticipate questions the audience might have and either include that information in the presentation or be prepared to address them in a Q&A session at the end of the presentation. Professional and gracious presentation is another key to effective communication, whether the setting is a conference, a banquet, a holiday luncheon, or a management retreat. "Recognize that when you speak at a business event, you represent your company and your office in that company," stated Steve Kaye in IIE Solutions. "Use the event as an opportunity to promote good will. Avoid complaints, criticism, or controversy. These will alienate the audience and destroy your credibility quickly. Instead, talk about what the audience wants to hear. Praise your host, honor the occasion, and compliment the attendees. Radiate success and optimism."
Oral presentations can be delivered extemporaneously (from an outline or notes); by reading from a manuscript; or from memory. The extemporaneous approach is often touted as a method that allows the speaker to make eye contact and develop a rapport with the audience while simultaneously conveying pertinent information. Reading from a manuscript is more often utilized for longer and/or detailed communications that cover a lot of ground. Memorization, meanwhile, is usually only used for short and/or informal discussions.
The delivery of effective oral presentations requires a speaker to consider his or her vocal pitch, rate, and volume. It is important to incorporate changes in vocal pitch to add emphasis and avoid monotony. It is also helpful to vary the rate of speaking and incorporate pauses to allow the listener to reflect upon specific elements of the overall message. Finding the appropriate volume is crucial to the success of a presentation as well. Finally, speakers should be careful not to add extraneous words or sounds—such as "um," "you know," or "okay"—between words or sentences in a presentation.
Nonverbal elements such as posture, gestures, and facial expressions are also important factors in developing good oral communication skills. "Your outward appearance mirrors your inner mood," Hildebrandt, Murphy, and Thomas confirmed. "Thus good posture suggests poise and confidence; stand neither at rigid attention nor with sloppy casualness draped over the podium, but erect with your weight about equally distributed on each foot." Some movement may be helpful to hold listeners' attention or to increase emphasis, but constant shifting or pacing should be avoided. Likewise, hand and arm gestures can be used to point, describe, or emphasize, but they should be varied, carefully timed, and adapted to the audience. Finally, good speakers should make frequent eye contact with the audience, let their facial expression show their interest in the ideas they are presenting, and dress in a way that is appropriate for the occasion.
Small business owners reflect the general population in that their enthusiasm for public speaking varies considerably for individual to individual. Some entrepreneurs enjoy the limelight and thrive in settings that call for public presentations (formal or informal). Others are less adept at public speaking and avoid being placed in such situations. But business consultants urge entrepreneurs to treat public presentations and oral communication skills as a potentially invaluable tool in business growth. "You may consider hiring a presentation coach or attending a workshop on business presentations," counseled Kaye. "These services can show you how to maximize your impact while speaking. In fact, learning such skills serves as a long-term investment in your future as an effective leader."
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Holmes, Godfrey. "Tactical Blunder." Accountancy. June 2000.
Kaye, Steve. "Make an Impact with Style: Presentation Tips for Leaders." IIE Solutions. March 1999.
Murphy, Herta A., Herbert W. Hildebrandt, and Jane P. Thomas. Effective Business Communications. Seventh Edition. McGraw-Hill, 1997.
Rosenbaum, Bernard L., "Presentation Techniques." American Salesman. January 2005.