A few times in the workplace, I received some baffling comments from some of my male colleagues – for some reasons the tone and pitch of my voice drown the content that I am championing. To them, it comes like a sing-song voice and a bit distracting, albeit my voice is far from melodious to any musical ear.

My pitch is different to what they are used to hear on average in the meetings, since at that time I was the only female engineer around amongst all other male counterparts in my workplace. At first, I used to be quite upset about this.

Soon, I realised that half the time, as we skim-read books, we also skim-hear conversations or lectures. Our brain almost always processes multiple things all at the same time. Until we grab someone’s attention completely by something very novel or they are totally comfortable within the domain, any unfamiliar pitch or tone needs extra effort to concentrate and digest the content. That’s often the reason for any communication gap in any mixed-gender or even multi-cultural community or workplace.

So, here is a note regarding how I have been changing the pattern of my communication in the last twenty-five years. I hope this helps some people who might be going into workplaces and may experience similar communication issues. Please note that verbal communication is not my forte. I am trying to find my weaknesses and fix them.

First, I will introduce you to my linguistic background.

I was born and brought up in Calcutta, so Bengali is my mother tongue. I thought I was pretty good in reading and writing in English, although speaking was totally hard work. My knowledge of Hindi was totally from watching Hindi movies, since my third language was not India’s national language, but Sanskrit.

With this linguistic background, I went to work outside Calcutta. I needed to speak in English and Hindi. As English was a second language for every one, people could easily accept my English, and a good friend of mine suggested  that I stick to English, especially, because of my lack of Hindi vocabulary and weird Bong accent. She meant well and I didn’t try to concentrate on getting my Hindi at per with others, simply because I went to work in Vadodara (in Gujarat) first. Later, when I was studying and working in Bangalore, the question didn’t even arise. English was more universal in Bangalore than Hindi ever was or will be.

Rule No. 1 – Slow down

With the above national experience of working in multi-cultural workplaces in India, then I went off to Sweden. I was studying there, but I also needed to do some teaching. The previous teaching assistant immediately adviced me to slow down. He said if you go on talking in that speed without any pause, no one is going to understand a thing. He made a hand-sign of a parrot talking.

According to him and I do agree with him on this – if you are trying to get someone to understand you better, rule number one is to slow down. Put calculated pause between your words. Check if they are actually understanding or nodding or simply oblivious to what’s going on. It is not enough for you to be able to articulate yourself, but it is equally important to gauge at regular intervals whether you have lost your audience or not. If you have, re-iterate on the same point and gain their attention back. This is why good lecturers repeat the summary in the next lecture before starting anything afresh.

Rule No. 2 – Precision

While exercising this tack for rule no. one, in one of the conferences, I was so busy in making people understand the introduction to my work, that I went over my allotted 30 minutes and couldn’t even go through the exact contributions of my work. A Spanish professor, Prof. J. Esparza, kinda saved my barrage of disappointing performance by saying that she at least made you understand the background, now go and read the paper. It was needed!

That brings me to the second point – precision. We need to be precise. Always think and rehearse what you need to convey in advance. Think of it like preparing for a concert or a play. This is needed when you want people to understand your ideas in the least amount of words, with enough pause to make them digest those concepts and be on the same page with you.

Rule No. 3 – Content

This rule is only for the technical audience. With very competent and smart audience, never blurt out any of your inferences at first. Show them the problem, describe what your thought prcoess is and how you tried to solve the problem, so that they can accompany you in that journey and come to the same conclusions. It may also happen that after walking the path with you, they will find out a fallacy and that’s also welcome. It may save lots of time, effort and money, too (since time is money at work)!

The thing is, when we say something in a few sentences that bring out the gist of an idea, it will hardly ever be received immediately, unless the audience contains truly fast thinkers. But, if the same observation is carried through systematically with bullet points, graphs, images, and illustrations and then you present the inference, that gives the audience longer time to ponder upon the topic and help them form the same conclusions empowered with evidences that they see. That gives them confidence on the content, since they seem to think that they have reached the conclusion themselves based on their own understanding.

So, patience and thoroughness are the keys here.

Rule No. 4 – Repetition

In some scenarios, especially, when you want to drill a concept into the young minds, repetition is the key. One infant school principal once told me that the kindergarten year is the most important year of a child’s schooling. They are taught how to learn new things in an amicable way through play and that builds the love for learning in those young hearts. Afterwards, all the later years are to build up on that, repeating some previous knowledge and adding more to it.

While teaching maths, you’d see that the teachers spend from weeks to a month to cover a topic in high schools, starting with the theory and then giving the students simple exercises first, and then the harder problems. All this is to strengthen the brain connections to handle a problem smoothly and seamlessly. It is much the same like driving. Like driving, problem solving becomes a reflexinve action without making too much effort. All the knowledge that our ancestors have passed on, get internalised in our heads and we act on them as effortlessly as we drive through a smooth highway. This is called walking on the shoulders of the giants.

Rule No. 5 – Delivery

Delivery happens to be immensely important as well. Many say, it is not what you say, but how you say it, makes the most difference to the audience. Our pitch and tone control the delivery of our messages. That’s what I started this post with.

The following might not be relevant in the next twenty years, when perhaps the workplaces will be more gender-balanced. Until then, the following observation might perhaps help some women.

If your industry is male-dominated, try to exert lower range of frequencies in your voice and be emphatic in your words. Don’t just go flurrying your words out of your mouth – that feels like a waterfall, apparently it is distracting. Make your words flow like raindrops from the side of your windows, slowly and steadily. A slow, but steady, emphatic stream of calculated words are deemed to emanate confidence. My take is that historically in our societies, men were in more authoritative positions and thus these unwritten perceptions and rules for engagement have been ingrained into our societal notion of confidence in communication.

Rule No. 6 – Not just the first impression, it’s your contributions that matter

Communication has always been an intriguing thing to me. I often wished that people would understand everything without being told anything, much like the aliens did in Aamir Khan’s movie, called “PK”. But, alas, that’s not the case for us! People get a first impression of strangers in as small as 10 seconds just with a single glance. The impressions are largely based on our personal history – our general knowledge and experience in the past rather than anything we heard from the new person. When people try to be open-minded, they perhaps give themselves a chance to hear out what the stranger has to say, but in most cases, first impression is pretty much set-in-stone in the very first encounter. That’s why so much of the world’s population is so much bothered about the presentation of themselves rather than gaining any substance in the core of their lives. Superficiality has gained popularity, self-promotion is considered as an essential trait for success, while the core product (our core personalities) is often endangered to the point of negligence. Humility, modesty – things of the past!

Here, I mean that these days, we are more interested in presenting a portrait of a “self” that sells well rather than be that person who has the depth of knowledge and ability of forging a path for themselves. So, instead of just concentrating on making impressions on people, I think we should try to be the person who will invoke a feeling of respect from anyone without a shadow of doubt.

Rule No. 7 – Punch in some sense of humour

Sense of humour is not a must-have for effective communication, but is really a good thing to put in. Especially in a conference, sense of humour in terms of some appropriate jokes can really be a winning move to win the hearts of your audience. Richard Hamming, in his book, called “The Art of Doing Science and Engineering”, recalls contemplating and practicing jokes in advance, first as an ice-breaker, then as a recess, and finally for a relief after some strenuous exercises on the brain-cells.

Rule No. 8 – Listening

Wait for your turn! When I lived in Calcutta, I saw that everyone is in hurry. People were jostling to get onto a bus, within the bus, in shops, while buying tickets in cinemas, etc We were all in a hurry and no one waits for anyone. From there, I went to a university town in Sweden. One day, I was watching someone who took all their time to get a large number of coins from their wallet, counted it one by one, and then gave it to the driver. The driver counted it again and then issued a ticket. This was happening all while we were waiting for our turn in a blizzard to get onto the safety and warmth of the biogasbus. This did not go one forever, though, soon the bus service started issuing bus cards to relieve people of that misery. However, what I want to make a note of here, is where the population density is low (Sweden’s population was about 9 million when I lived there), people seem to have more tolerance, an increased level of patience and improved ability of listening as well.

It’s often said that effective leadership is achieved through effective listening. Chronic interrupters are never popular in an organisation. It is even considered rude in most places, since it’s not really a group discussion that the companies conduct in our university campuses in India to gauge our communication skill! So, you don’t need to put your sentence in when someone is catching a breath, rather let them finish what they have to say and then take your turn.

But, I have to admit that at times, I still find myself interrupting people, simply because of the urgency I sometimes have to let the words out of my mouth. Old practices never die, you see!

Rule No. 9 – Decison Making

In the corporate world, there are more requirements for a leadership role. You’d need to be able to make decisions correctly from the information you receive, but not too hastily, and definitely not when there is not enough information. Ability to distinguish the scenarios when you should make quick decisions and when not to, make or break your career, and even the organisation’s future.

The ground rules for decision making would be to know what is the output (decision) we are after and if there is a business process, that has been followed by the trustworthy people who were able to provide a robust method to solve a problem and the business process seems satisfactory. Here comes your experience and gut-feeling to empower you with the decision-making ability.

Rule No. 10 – All’s well that ends well

Nothing is ever useful unless it is seen through till the end. In an organisation, there might be profuse amount of ideas tossed about, but unless the leaders are able to follow through an idea and finally deploy it for public use, none of the brilliant ideas are of any use to anyone, in general. Often, there are hurdles on this. Getting an agreement on the idea is the very first hurdle. Even if an idea seems to be good, pushing it through the work pipelines across teams can be a significant issue, since the companies at the moment are built upon the concept of social coding. So, dependencies within the organisation and outside the organisaion, on multiple software platforms often become another hurdle to cross in getting things done. Here, it becomes rather contextual and we need to solve this issue on a case-to-case basis. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Most of the rules above are really generic and just not for aspiring females, but anyone who can relate to those issues in communication. I, myself, am still learning these tips and trying to practice. I feel communicating successfully is much like the action of parking perfectly – one needs to keep alert every time and can’t assume that the lessons are over.

Before I stop, I would like to tell you how I realised the importance of the communication. I used to be happy solving the problems that were given to me. Then, came a day when it became important which problem I would like to solve. I actually learnt it from much younger people. Coming from a lower middle-class background, my circumstances were often better than I imagined. I have never consciously thought about any dreams. At any point of time, I had certain options and I chose the most suitable one given the circumstances, like solving an optimisation problem. I did not ask what I wanted from my life! On the contrary, in the western world, where mere survival is not the only goal in life, job satisfaction is a key concept in the worklife. It came to me like a newsflash. Then, I realised I need to up my game in the arena of communication – consciously and effectively, if I need to do anything beyond what I can do effortlessly. Why? Simply, because, effective communication, achieving results in the maze of this society are often like playing a game of chess with much less information.

Why bother with this game? Well, you want to live in this society and be heard? You want to be taken seriously? You will need to play this game of communication and win? Then, you better know the rules of the game and master it.

P.S. Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash