How do I get better at expressing myself verbally?
July 9, 2016 12:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm not very good at expressing myself verbally — and I don't think it's just a lack of confidence. How do I get better?

I realized recently that there's a huge disconnect between how I think and how I talk. Most people, it seems, have a running conversation going on in their head — practically a direct line from their thoughts to their mouths. I don't think I have that. Every time I want to say something, I have to pause for a few seconds and string my scattered and amorphous thoughts into scentences, even if I already "feel" exactly what I want to say. When I actually get to the talking part, there's a ton of umming and ah-ing and frequent pauses. I also find myself often tripping over my own words. Not only is this kind of dialogue incredibly slow-moving, but I tend to lose track of what I'm actually trying to say in the middle of saying it! This makes it difficult to discuss and debate complex topics, and makes me feel incredibly awkward and inarticulate unless I'm 100% confident in what I'm talking about. (Very rare.) It's why I prefer writing: I can look over what I've said, get my thoughts together, consider the opposing viewpoints at my own leisure, and express my ideas very coherently. But it's no way to live in the real world, as it's no longer a real-time process.

Has anyone here had this problem? Aside from Toastmasters, how do you get better at this? (I'm going to try recording myself sepaking extemporaneously for 15 minutes every night for a start — not sure if it will help or not. I can't help but fear that this goes deeper than just lack of practice.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
This is totally me, to the point where I asked a similar question a few years ago. (Caveat: a lot of answerers to that question interpreted it to be about prepared public speaking rather than extemporaneous/conversational speaking, which was... half right.) There were quite a few people commiserating and offering some good tips. What works best for me is to focus on speaking a bit slower and enunciating properly: I find that this both a) slows my articulatory muscles down so I don't do the "tripping over my words" thing as much, and b) takes up some (but not all) of my mental focus so my brain doesn't race ahead of my words. I've also found that in the right context, most people are understanding when I just flat out say "hang on, let me organize my thoughts a bit better" and ruminate a bit.

Good luck! I suspect that many people who grew up with their noses buried in books (or other reading material) face this problem to some degree, so you're in good company!
posted by btfreek at 1:08 AM on July 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Most people, it seems, have a running conversation going on in their head — practically a direct line from their thoughts to their mouths.

I've heard it suggested that doing one's thinking out loud like that is an extrovert thing. And sometimes it flows from a blithe disregard of consequences. I'm a blurter, and there are definitely things that I've said that I'd like to take back.

Another variation is that some people apparently think in words and others think in pictures. The latter is going to require more effort to put ideas into words.
posted by puddledork at 10:30 AM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Speaking, like most of what we do, is a skill. Because it's a skill, the only way to get better is practice; I see you've tried a few things to that end, but it doesn't seem to be working.

My suggestion is one that's common on AskMe: start working with a therapist (disclosure: I am a therapist). But wait, hear me out! I'm going to propose a slightly different, and more specific way of going about this. When you call in to schedule a consultation session, give them a summary of what you just said here, and -- here's the important part -- specify that you're interested in skills learning around verbalizing and speaking. That will let the therapist know that you're not interested in exploring your past, adjusting your personality, etc.; just interested in having a place and person to practice those skills with. Certainly not every therapist would go with that approach, but IME many would be more than happy to work within that scope.

I really do think that kind of setting would be very helpful to building up these skills: it's confidential (by law), it's a private and quiet setting, only one other person is there, and that person is professionally trained to be perceptive, caring, and aimed only at doing what is going to help you. Other things will help for sure, it's just if you get immediate, direct feedback from another living, thinking human, you'll move along the learning curve much more quickly.

This might feel difficult to start up, given that you'll have to start talking about your problems with how to talk better; it does seem like a Catch-22. To that end, you could consider writing down all your concerns, goals, relevant background information, etc., as you've done here, and then printing that out and bringing it to the first session or two to use as a jumping-off point. I know that therapists can be hard to find, and insurance can be a headache to deal with; I'm happy to help with that part (or any other concerns) however I can over PM. Best of luck!
posted by obliterati at 10:36 AM on July 9, 2016

Does any of this sound like you?
posted by aniola at 10:44 AM on July 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can tell you, as someone who can speak confidently (in the sense of putting sentences together on the fly), that I rehearse most of my speech in my head before I say it. I listen to what I'm about to say before I open my mouth. I imagine (and I hope) it doesn't look like I'm pausing all that long.
The other part (and sadly you can't go back and have done this) is that from a very young age I would rehearse and repeat and refine sentences and passages from cartoons, movies, TV shows, to try to get my voice to do what they did. I taught myself to make my speech more certain and fluid, and cut out most of those little pauses.
I also think literally out loud about a lot of things I think about, things I think I might like to talk about, letting the words run off in one direction or another and then reining them back in if I go too far off topic. I repeat things and shorten or smooth or clarify sentences, to crystallize the ideas in my head, so that when I do talk about the thing, I already know what I want to say.

I admit, though, that this technique is time-consuming and makes you seem a little nuts if someone walks in on you, so it's not for everyone.

Let me also add that I don't always speak with confidence. I'm often quite shy, and I don't always speak loudly enough to be heard, especially in customer-transaction type situations. It takes a special effort to say "thanks!" at a real conversational volume when all I want to do is pay and get out. But when I'm socially comfortable, it's much, much easier. Maybe try running your practice speeches in front of a trusted friend or family member, if you have someone you can ask.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 11:01 AM on July 9, 2016

Practice! I find that the same thing happens to me when I've gone long periods without having any engaging conversations, and when I've spent a good bit of time with a family member that never lets me finish my sentences. Try to find one person who you enjoy talking to and meet them at least once a week for coffee. It also helps to scream really loud (I do this in my car) and sing loudly (also in my car) on the way to places where you will have to speak.
posted by myselfasme at 12:55 PM on July 9, 2016

This is me. I'm incredibly good at small talk but the deeper topics are much harder. From what you said, I think it comes from a lack of self confidence. My head is a pond of words, thoughts, and feelings. I don't think in linear sentences. I even mentioned this to my therapist and he didn't even bat an eye, it's pretty common. When I'm discussing things with people and I need a little time to put my thoughts in a coherent sentence, I just say so. No one has ever faulted me for it. And if they did, the conversation would come to an abrupt end. You just need to voice your needs, and this stems from self confidence.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:48 PM on July 16, 2016

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