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6 ways to sound more professional at work

October 14, 2015, 5:00 PM UTC
A woman giving a speech in front of an audience
Photograph by Getty Images/Fuse

Answer by Christi Wentz on Quora.

In the winter of 2004, I loaded up my Taurus with presents in the parking lot of a Hobby Lobby after a long day of Christmas shopping. I pulled out of my parking spot and found myself stuck behind a line of cars waiting to exit.

Realizing I’d be there for awhile, I turned up the heater and fiddled with the radio dial. I glanced in the rearview mirror and watched as a woman with a minivan slammed her door shut after loading up her purchases beside me.

I found a station I wanted to listen to, and the next time I looked up, I saw the red lights on the back of her vehicle glowing. “Well, she’s not just going to back right into me,” I thought, looking at the line of cars ahead, blocking me. But as the van started rolling slowly in reverse, I knew in my heart that she was, in fact, going to hit me.

I immediately laid on the horn, blaring a warning to her and inched as close as I could to the car in front of me. She struck the rear of my vehicle (just bumped it, really) backing out in the direction opposite me, and then she just kept right on going.

I threw my car into park and left it there, running after her and waving my arms frantically. She stopped her minivan and rolled down her window, and when I finally caught my breath I hollered, “What, are you deaf? You just hit my fucking car! Didn’t you hear me?”

The woman looked at me in alarm and then she started moving her hands about her wildly. I was confused for about a second before the horror of the situation finally hit me: The woman who had hit my car was, in fact, actually deaf, and I stood there in the snow with my mouth hanging open in disbelief.

It was an incident that left me with incredibly mixed feelings. It also taught me a little something about communication, quite forcefully. It is absolutely vital that you and your audience are on the same page, whether communicating professionally or personally.

When I was honking my horn at the woman who hit me, I was trying to relay a warning. But I could have honked my horn a billion times and that lady would never have heard me. Neither writing nor speaking will do you or your audience any good if they cannot get the message you’re sending. Here’s how to make sure that when you communicate with an audience, you aren’t just honking your horn in vain at them:

1. Tell a story. Make it relatable. Tell your readers about that time you got into a car accident at Christmas and then you lost your temper and then you said something you regret to this day. Make them cry or make them laugh. Make them do both, and then tie your lesson into it. At the very least you will have captured their attention. If all goes well, they will use the story to understand what you are saying. In the very best case, it will help them take what they have learned and use it in new, exciting ways.

2. Speak the language of the people. Use a common vernacular. Avoid words will most likely be unfamiliar. Think of it like explaining how babies are made: You will use a very different language when you write a peer-reviewed article about embryos in a professional journal than when you talk to a five year old about reproduction. Save technical jargon for the professionals who will understand it, and if you have to go there with a general audience, then you need to take the time to explain.

3. Stay on point. Sure, I could have told you all about what happened after my car accident: How we exchanged information and then I went home and vented to my friends, and then I wrapped presents, and oh, we had a nice tree that year, I got it from K-Mart on sale, the lights were already attached, which is good because stringing lights is a pain, but it sucks when one goes out…but none of that really has anything to do with this. Don’t be that guy at the party who just keeps talking without ever making his point and doesn’t know when the story should end. People hate him.

4. Format. What you write or relate out loud should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In public speaking, there is a saying: “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em again.” In other words, in your introduction, you’re going to let your audience know what your topic is and three or four key points that you’re going to make. Then you’re going to make those points. And in your conclusion, you’re going to briefly summarize the points you made again. Repetition is the key to learning and your audience remembering what you said.

5. Be polished. You can spend forever practicing a speech, but no one will respect that you have the authority to relate that information if you look like you just rolled out of bed. Conversely, you can look really slick and yet completely lose your audience if you haven’t practiced your speech or taken the time to format it. In the world of writing, being polished can be as simple as following a publishing house’s submission guidelines for your manuscript, or making sure that your writing is free of factual, spelling, or grammatical errors.

6. Anticipate the opposition. If you are writing or speaking to convince, you need to be well versed enough in both sides of the argument to know what the opposing side will say, and think of one or two ways to contradict it. Bonus points if you do it before they even ask. Some people will think this is overkill, but having an counter-argument ready will make you look like an authority in your subject. (<—See what I did there?)

If you follow the steps above, ‘honking your horn in vain’ should not be a problem. You will simply be following the wise old adage which states: Make sure that you know your audience.

This article originally appeared on Quora: What are some tips that can help people communicate professionally, both in their speech and in writing?

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