Help me help you help me.. help.
June 10, 2008 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Often I find myself thinking "yes, that's exactly what I was trying to say", or "that certainly didn't come across as clearly as I wanted", and even "how do I put what I'm feeling/needing into words?" Is this a disconnect between my (sometimes very scattered) thoughts and my verbal skills?

I'd like to be more articulate. And not just articulate, but thoroughly so. Communication is a big part of my job, and there's a need for clear direction and conveyance in a fast paced environment.

Where to begin...

I've really been feeling unfocused lately, and when it comes time for me to say something, to get something across, it takes to the wind when it comes out of my mouth. I'll start to communicate an entire situation or thought but fail to round it out with necessary details, or convolute it with unnecessary ones. This happens with things I've thought through, but more often than not:

There are times when I lack the vision of details that I really should have seen. And when these oversights are articulated back to me, it's like a giant slap to the face ('of course, I practically thought that too, why didn't it get to the tip of my tongue and out of my mouth?)

How can I refine my communication and articulation skills? How can I put what I want to say into a neat collection of words- and more importantly, how can I make sure I'm going to say everything I want to?

The obvious answer might be to slow down and really think it through, but a) sometimes I just don't have the time for that, and b) sometimes that just plain doesn't work.

I'm sure I'll be posting below to add details as responses prompt them (really, isn't that the nature of this question?)

On preview: this seems like a breakdown of such a basic human skill, but what to do when you're not satisfied with your own abilities?

Thanks in advance.
posted by self to Human Relations (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I've been having a lot of these problems recently myself. I believe a huge part of it stems from something not terribly obvious (even though it should be):

I do not sleep enough hours.


Everything I'm reading about sleep deprivation (which I definitely suffer from due to my inability to get to sleep at a reasonable hour) lists these sorts of things as symptoms... the lack of focus, the missing of details, the careless mistakes....

If you're not getting a good night's sleep consistently (8+ hours a night) - that might be your answer. Unfortunately, even knowing it's probably my answer hasn't helped me get to sleep any earlier on a regular basis yet... d'oh...
posted by twiggy at 1:28 PM on June 10, 2008

Just thought I should add: Say for example some friends and I are watching a movie, and someone adds insight. I sometimes immediately think "yes! I was skirting around that idea myself, but couldn't articulate it so well."

Also, I tend to get a good amount of sleep, on average at least six-seven hours a night.
posted by self at 1:35 PM on June 10, 2008

Say for example some friends and I are watching a movie, and someone adds insight. I sometimes immediately think "yes! I was skirting around that idea myself, but couldn't articulate it so well."

Are you really skirting around the idea, or do you mean "yes! That's exactly the kind of insight I wish I had, but don't."
posted by 23skidoo at 1:40 PM on June 10, 2008

For me, being articulate is like a muscle. You have to exercise it to bulk it up. You should have seen me when I first started teaching. I was a mess. But a couple of years later, I continually got praised for how clear and articulate I was. What worked for me was mostly brute force. Teaching and teaching and teaching... not giving up no matter how humiliated I felt. Can you do some sort of regular communicating? Even if it means volunteering somewhere once a week. An improv class or toastmasters might work, too.

One thing that helped (and still helps) is to be super-prepared. I knew whatever I was teaching forwards and backwards. I didn't know what I was going to say, but I knew my subject. And I didn't always know my subject because it happened to be what I'm an expert in. I had to teach subjects I didn't know all that well. But by the time I walked into class, I'd spent hours studying up.

A lot of this has to do with confidence. I didn't feel all that confident as a speaker, so I wasn't going to compound that with lack-of-confidence about my knowledge, too.

It also really helps me to keep my eye on the prize, which is NOT to look good, to speak well, or to make people like me; it's to explain an idea. It's not about me. It's about the subject.

It also really helps me to bathe in words. I read constantly. I read well-written books by expert communicators. I watch plays. I watch verbal movies (Merchant Ivory) and TV Shows (Deadwood).
posted by grumblebee at 1:45 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pick any number of books on a summer reading list and then also read the cliff notes. Many times you'll find critical analysis of the books that discuss symbolism and ideas. You can improve your ability for insight by analyzing others.
posted by mcarthey at 1:47 PM on June 10, 2008

^ 23skidoo: "Say for example some friends and I are watching a movie, and someone adds insight. I sometimes immediately think "yes! I was skirting around that idea myself, but couldn't articulate it so well."

Are you really skirting around the idea, or do you mean "yes! That's exactly the kind of insight I wish I had, but don't."

Thanks for the answer.
posted by self at 1:52 PM on June 10, 2008

It was asking for clarification.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:58 PM on June 10, 2008

There are only three factors under your control: (1) preparation, (2) practice, and (3) listening/knowing your audience. All other advice is commentary on these points.

I suspect from your follow-up that you are aiming for spontaneous wit and insight. You can't hone that directly. In any event, it's often a pleasing illusion. A lot of preparation and practice happened beforehand.

Last point: listening is a seriously undervalued aspect of being well-spoken.
posted by ferdydurke at 2:00 PM on June 10, 2008

^ 23skidoo: "It was asking for clarification."

It seemed snarky, that's all. For clarification: If I had a greater ability to articulate my thoughts, and therefore connect them a little better (and distill the details), then I may have spoken the same exact insight. As it stands, the edges of the ideas are fuzzy, and I cannot grasp the right words to pull them together into a coherent sentence. Something like that.
posted by self at 2:05 PM on June 10, 2008

Have you tried taking supplements like ginkgo biloba or something else that could enhance concentration? Being sharp isn't just about being able to spontaneously come up with the right thing to say; it's also about how well you can listen to someone and interpret what they're saying in order to properly organize what you want to say inside your head.
posted by Kevbo947 at 2:24 PM on June 10, 2008

Six or seven hours per night is not "a good amount of sleep". It's more like the minimum amount for most adults. Try getting at least eight and see if it helps.

I have this problem too, but I have ADD. The most noticeable effect of stimulants for me was that for the first time in my life I felt like I was forming thoughts before speaking, that I paused before speaking, that generally I was more thoughtful about what I was saying. I wrote and said a few (in my view) uncharacteristically complex things when I first started on them. But if you don't have ADD of course it's a different ballgame.
posted by loiseau at 2:29 PM on June 10, 2008

I've often felt I may have adult onset ADD (I'm 24), as these symptoms have been increasing in frequency and difficulty lately. I have never been officially diagnosed, though a psychiatrist I was seeing about twice a month mentioned that it sounded like I may have it. I was hoping there was a more holistic approach with meditative regiments and supplements (as some have mentioned above) that may help before I dive into medication.
posted by self at 2:37 PM on June 10, 2008

There's no such thing as adult-onset ADD. If you have it you had it as a kid. It's a criterion of diagnosis.
posted by loiseau at 2:50 PM on June 10, 2008

What you've described is a skill lacking in all of us except the very best writers and poets.

Language is an incredibly crude way of expressing ourselves compared to the mind-blowing complexity and fineness of our thoughts. In your mind there's a million different levels between feelings on a subject, but perhaps you can only express that in cold, hard language in a twenty ways.

So, feed the machine. Read copiously, the more you subject yourself to the language, the more you'll gain easier access to it when you need it. Begin writing, books, a journal, online or not.

Keep practicing and you'll find the words.
posted by Static Vagabond at 2:50 PM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

i totally sympathize. i am a well-read, well-educated, reasonably bright and sharp person who WORKS WITH WORDS ALL DAY LONG and there are days that i can barely get out a sentence. for me, i'll often say the word that's close to what i mean, but not exactly, as if the mechanism for choosing the word somehow grabbed the word from the adjoining slot by mistake. or else i'll circle around the idea for sentences and sentences, finally getting to my point. i never do this in writing. (sometimes i wonder if i've had a stroke or something.) maybe i should just pretend i'm reading my own writing out loud?

i have noticed it improving a little since starting lexapro, although i don't know if that's just a coincidence or because the lexapro also helps me sleep and concentrate somewhat better.

i think practice helps, too. the more you do it, the more you get the hang of it.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:58 PM on June 10, 2008

FWIW, i'm 38 and i still struggle with this.

part of learning how to deal with it involved my examining why i felt so strongly. over time, i came to realize that i didn't just want to be articulate, i wanted to be noticed as being articulate. uncoupling the second part from the first part has been a rocky but enlightening reflection.

so, once i took on the performative aspect -- the fact that i often was "coming up short" because i was concerned about getting a comment in early, or making an impact in a conversation -- it became a lot easier. now, i make a point of taking my time to formulate my thoughts. i've let my ego drop a bit, regarding how critical i perceive my invovement in any conversation to be. i often make a point of not verbalizing my thoughts for long periods, for the express purpose of listening to/watching/analyzing others' thoughts and communications style.

you have a lot of self-judgment in your OP. a lot of "shoulds" and such. can you examine why you feel you "should" be doing "x" or saying "y"? perhaps it's not your communication style that needs tweaking, but your generalized set of expectations for yourself.

i had a whole new layer of stress about this added to my life in recent years, when i returned to graduate school. talk about wanting to verbalize cogent, articulate, well-reasoned thoughts! oof! oftentimes i would come home from class and crash out, being so exhausted from trying to maintain that perfect focus. i tend, however, to be highly self-critical. do you have tendencies like this as well? are they serving you in this circumstance?

if you're interested in developing a quick-wittedness, you might consider studying comedic improv. again, i think you have to consider the performative aspect. but there's something to experiencing that quick-connection that happens when you do throw-away improv with perfect strangers.

communication is all about position-taking. perhaps you just haven't found your position yet. be patient, keep practicing, and don't stress about it. words are sadly imperfect, and gratefully impermanent.
posted by CitizenD at 3:14 PM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

My friend had similar problems as you you this past winter after his first semester at college. He went to the doctor and had some tests run and he was diagnosed with a mild case of ADD and was prescribed Adderall. He says his grades have been better and that he is more focused in general but I was surprised by how easy it was for him to get medication. I don't know if you would get prescribed Adderall but I think supplements are a better option considering the long term effects of ADD medication. I started taking Adderall (unprescribed) while I studied for tests and exams before I realized how bad it was for me. After I stopped taking Adderall I started taking Ginkgo Biloba as a daily supplement and it had almost the same effect.
posted by Kevbo947 at 3:22 PM on June 10, 2008

How do you think? The things you describe come naturally to me because I think in words and abstractions. Literally, I will see words in my head with every thought I think. They are made up of letters, as I would see them on paper. I have been told that other people think using primarily abstractions, primarily pictures, etc. I'm having trouble finding where I first heard about this, but this wikipedia article talks about it.

It sounds like you might think in abstractions, though you would know better than I would. I suggest it because you seem to have the insight but difficulty pulling it together linguistically. My fiance is that way and sometimes has difficulty finding words for complex ideas. In writing, he has time to think and is actually even more concise that I am. Having time to think carefully helps a lot, but like you said, that's not always possible. My suggestion is to practice. When we first began dating it took him much longer to articulate finer points in conversation, but now he's as good at it as I am. The more conversations you have, the better you will get. Don't beat yourself up over anything.

One important element of being articulate, I think, is the ability to make distinctions. You might practice making distinctions among things in general, in any form of communication that you like. For example, you might do this by writing essays or blogging about something where you feel that someone else has missed the point, or where you have insight that others do not. When I started doing this just because I'm neurotic and anal and opinionated, I first found it somewhat difficult to pin down exactly what it was that I felt needed to be discussed. I would just babble into NotePad until I stumbled upon what it was, then I would start over and make it much more focused. After doing that, I find it much more common that I skip the babbling phase. It carries over into real life conversation quite well; what used to take me ten minutes of serious thought to excavate from my mind I can now put together in a few seconds. If you don't think in words, I think you could probably still do the same thing with just a little more effort.

A safe thing to practice on is your feelings for why you like or dislike something. For example, a lot of people will read a book, or see a movie, or try some food or activity. They will know if they like it or not, but most of them cannot tell you exactly why. Sit down and figure those things out. Question the answers you initially supply yourself and see if they hold up. Keep going until you get it just right. A more difficult thing to practice on is your own irrational emotions (and we all have those) but it's more rewarding. There are three other upsides to this. First, it can be quite fun. Second, it can tell you a lot about yourself that you didn't realize before. Third, being able to have a deeper understanding of your feelings toward things will improve your quality of life. You will likely overcome feelings you have but dislike and untangle some cognitive dissonance. Being articulate starts to be more of a bonus than an ends itself.

Assorted other advice... If something is not central to what you're communicating, leave it out. Ask clarifying questions if you're not sure what information the other person would find relevant; they can narrow down the scope of what you need to tell them for you. Don't be afraid to be silent for a moment or two before you speak; take your time if you need a moment to gather your thoughts.

Finally, it's not the end of the world if you need to talk your way through what you want to say. My friends do this all the time and I don't think any less of them for it. Does doing that make you nervous? If so, consider why that may be. Are you afraid of speaking, or maybe looking disorganized or foolish in general? In high school I took debate, which is the other biggest contributor to my being "articulate on my feet." The first couple years I was always nervous before a speech, then it didn't effect me anymore. Then I would force myself to do speeches without preparing beforehand to challenge myself. You might be able to find some similar way to force yourself to think on your feet in front of other people; I imagine there are probably public speaking classes catered to this sort of thing.
posted by Nattie at 3:33 PM on June 10, 2008 [12 favorites]

To improve impromptu speaking skills, try Toastmasters. This is the kind of skill that can be developed with practice.
posted by bananafish at 3:56 PM on June 10, 2008

Are you sure you don't say anything that makes others think "oh wow, how can I be that insightful?"

Also, can you clarify what kind of insight you want? Being able to put complex issues into words, being able to have insight into the behavior of people in a movie, and being able to express yourself with poise are three slightly different things.

I'll second the "practice" suggestion. Of those I know, people who are really good at clearly and concisely defining what work should be done have a lot of practice at delegating. People who are really good at making one or two key points during negotation have done a lot of negotiation. People who are really good at listening and having insight into the core of what's going on for someone have done a lot of supportive listening. A public defender friend is incredibly articulate because he's always speaking in a courtroom and then having to read transcripts of his questions and arguments. My own ability to talk clearly has slowly been getting better because every time I don't make sense, coworkers ask me what I mean. Etc.
posted by salvia at 5:36 PM on June 10, 2008

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