Overcome Barriers to Communication

A speaker needs to be aware of the various barriers to communication that exist and the best way to overcome each of those barriers.

In Summary:

  1. You have a responsibility to make yourself heard clearly, without distractions or unchecked prejudice
  2. Your message must be well considered and well practised
  3. Be aware of who you are presenting to and tailor your speech to that specific audience
  4. You are not presenting to inanimate objects, but to human beings – react appropriately to their feedback and they will reward you with their attention
  5. Become familiar with the physical location where you will be presenting, and any of its limitations

It is not uncommon to encounter difficulty in getting your message across without knowing why. Before we can identify the barriers to communication it helps to understand what we are trying to achieve.

What is our aim?
Our aim is to effectively communicate our message to our audience.

Components of communication

Most communication models consist of four parts: the speaker, the message, the receiver, the feedback. The fifth component of a communication model is the physical environment in which we are operating. Good speakers realise that there are potential barriers to communication in each of these five parts.

The communication barrier

It is a worthwhile exercise for speakers to sit down and identify the major barriers that can stop their message getting across. If you haven’t identified the barriers there is little chance that they can be satisfactorily overcome. Listed below are some of the major barriers to communication that can interfere with your ability to get your message across.

The speaker

  • Volume – If you cannot be heard you are wasting your time and that of the audience.
  • Vocal quality – Unless you make good use of your voice you will lose the attention of your audience rapidly. Use vocal variation, rise and fall in the voice, pausing, pitch and variations in pace and volume.
  • Mannerisms – Mannerisms can distract your audience. They may be counting how many times you scratch your nose, or how many times you remove and replace your glasses rather than listening to your speech.
  • Aids – Messages can be reinforced by appropriate speaking aids such as models, posters, overheads or computer generated visual aids. These same aids can become a barrier to communication if they are inappropriate to the message you are giving verbally, too small for your audience to see, or likely to overpower your verbal message.
  • Prejudices – We are all products of our upbringing and the environment in which we live. We all have prejudices and pre-conceived ideas on various issues. Unless we are aware of those prejudices we may have difficulty in providing a balanced view and thus alienate some of our audience.

The message

  • Poor preparation – Unless your speech is well prepared it is unlikely to be a success. Many worthwhile messages are lost simply because the speaker has not thought through the presentation and has no clear idea of what message they want to leave with their audience.
  • Poor construction – We need to make our message easy to understand. One of the best ways of doing this is to ensure our speech has clear and easy to follow construction. A simple chronological structure which leads your audience naturally from one section to the next and leaves a clear, memorable message at the end of your speech is probably the easiest to use of the many structures available to you.
  • Uses of language – Keep the language simple. Avoid using jargon, acronyms or unnecessarily lengthy words. It is important your audience understands every word you have to say.
  • Ambiguity – It is important that your message be clear and unambiguous. Your construction and use of language will aid you in this. Given that you have taken those issues into account it is still extremely important to completing your speech that you test it on a friend or colleague to get honest feedback. Review the speech yourself, and ask yourself if it is appropriate for the audience to whom you are going to deliver it. Will your message be understood? If the answer is “no” then perhaps it is time to rework your speech.
  • Mixed message – Having a message that is unclear is unacceptable for any speaker. Of equal concern is the possibility of giving mixed messages. This can happen when you argue two sides of an issue and fail to direct your audience to what you believe to be your preferred view of the issues you have discussed. It can also happen when a speaker’s body language is in conflict with the verbal message being conveyed.
  • Inappropriate – If your message is inappropriate it will not be well received. Speakers need to be aware of their target audience and structure their message in a manner that that particular audience will deem appropriate for their purposes and fit in with their perceptions of the topic.
  • Time – Utilising one’s time properly is essential. If you have ten minutes to deliver your speech then tailor it accordingly. Time yourself saying the speech out loud at a comfortable, conversational speed, including pauses, to get an idea of how long your speech actually takes.
  • Boring material – No matter how good your argument or how receptive your audience, unless you put your message across in an interesting manner which makes your audience want to hear more, you will lose a proportion of them along the way. Good ways to make your speech interesting include using personal experiences, illustrations and relevant stories. Consider explaining early in your presentation what the audience can expect to gain from your presentation and why they should listen.
  • Lack of logic – A lack of logic can sometimes be forgiven in entertaining or light-hearted speeches. However, in speeches intended to inform or persuade your audience, it is essential you are able to back up your arguments with facts and support your conclusions. Review your speech when you have completed the first draft and ask yourself if the conclusions you arrive at, or the message you intend leaving your audience with, is supported by the content of the speech.

The receiver

  • Level of knowledge – Your audience may have a specific level of knowledge about the subject on which you are to speak. As a speaker be aware of that level so you can pitch your speech at the right level. If you don’t, there is a strong chance you will lose a large portion of your audience early in your presentation.
  • Age group – The age or background of your audience may have a major influence on how you will address them.
  • Prejudices – Your proposed audience may have pre-conceived ideas on the topic or argument you intend to present. Knowing what those prejudices are can be extremely important in enabling you to present a speech that will take into account the arguments the audience may have in their minds.

The audience feedback

  • The audience feels ignored by speaker – A speaker must recognise and react to feedback such as muttering, excessive moving and coughing in the audience. There may be a need to change tack or ask questions.
  • The audience feels discouraged by speaker – Failure to keep eye contact with the audience or encourage questions may discourage them from providing valuable feedback.

 The physical environment

  • Acoustics – If the acoustics of a venue absorb sound, set up echoes or create other difficulties, the speaker will have difficulty in being heard or understood. Visit the venue prior to giving your speech to identify any problems and seek assistance from the people at the venue with amplification. Practise your delivery and adjust it to suit the venue’s limitations.
  • Distractions – These could be due to the poor set-up of the venue including placement of the audience, the equipment such as overhead projectors, whiteboards, computers and rostrum. There may be a meeting or even a band in an adjacent room. There may be a busy roadway nearby or ineffective air-conditioning. Being aware of the problems will give you your best chance to remove the problems or adjust to them.

In Conclusion

There are many barriers to effective communication. Some we can fix, some we can learn to live with. What is important is that we are aware of them. We can then take the appropriate action, which will greatly enhance our chances of providing our audience with a memorable presentation, one which achieves our aim of effectively communicating our message.

Reproduced from the Rostrum publication “Tips on Public Speaking and Meeting Procedures. Vol. 1” – a collection of 30 handouts by Ron Johnson.

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