Unlocking the power of paraverbal communication at work

You probably already know that how you say something is just as important as what you say. And you can control and influence how you say something by understanding paraverbal communication.

Paraverbal community is a powerful tool to help you land your messages more effectively and be more influential – crucial when your team doesn’t work for you.

But what is this science, you ask.

Paraverbal communication involves the use of nonverbal cues such as tone and volume to influence how your message is received. That’s all it is – the extra layer of nuance conveyed by how you say something.

In this blog post, we will discuss more about what paraverbal communication is, how it works in practice and common mistakes (don’t do these!). We’ll also explore the impact technology has had on paraverbal communication at work today, because how you say something is different when you are communicating through a tiny square window.

What is paraverbal communication?

Let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing before we go any further.

Paraverbal communication is the use of non-verbal cues to convey meaning and emotion in verbal interactions. It includes elements such as tone, volume, pitch, speed, pauses, inflection and emphasis.

Use it to emphasize a point or express feelings that words alone cannot convey.

To get more technical, paraverbal communication is the use of vocal intonation and other non-linguistic signals to add emphasis or emotion to spoken language.

Your tone of voice, rate of speech, volume level and even pauses between words all play an important role in conveying the message effectively.

The 3 components of communication

Paraverbal messages are one component of communication. The other two are:

  • Verbal messages i.e. what words you say.
  • Non-verbal messages i.e. body language.

They all work together to deliver your message to the person listening, but some components carry more weight than others.

In his book, Silent Messages, Prof. Albert Mehrabian says that the split of impact is as follows:

  • Non-verbal messages (body language) = 55% of what is understood by the other person
  • Paraverbal messages (how you use emphasis, intonation and silence) = 38%
  • Verbal messages (the words you choose) = 7%

Admittedly, Mehrabian’s 7-38-55% communication rule has been around since the experiments he conducted in 1967 so I wonder how much of this has ben influenced by new technology. In addition, if you read more about the studies he conducted, you’ll see that he never intended his rule to be applied to all communications as the research was limited.

Still, it’s an interesting starting point from which to reflect on your own communication effectiveness.

Examples of paraverbal communication

Think of the different ways you could say this sentence: The project is going to be 2 weeks late.

Disappointed voice: This could convey that you are the project sponsor repeating back to someone that you aren’t going to get the work completed on time.

Excited voice: This could convey that you’ve been hoping the project would be delayed because that fits much better for the launch plan and actually it’s good news for everyone.

Inflection (voice goes up) at the end: This makes it a question. If your voice rises at the end of the sentence, you’re asking if you have understood correctly about the delay.

Stress on the ‘2’: Perhaps your boss expected you to say that it would be 4 weeks late so your sharing factual news but it’s better news than they were expecting.

Stress on the ‘weeks’: Again, perhaps your boss was expecting a couple of months of delay, so you put the stress on weeks to show that the situation is not as bad as they were expecting.

You can see that there are so many different ways that your intonation and tone can affect how a message is perceived.

More examples of effective paraverbal communication at work

Remember that these are just examples. So much of all kinds of communication is cultural, so if these examples seem off to you, don’t copy them – do what you think feels right.

A manager calmly but firmly asking their team members questions about a project they are working on demonstrates their interest in helping them succeed without coming across as overly demanding or aggressive towards them due to their measured tone of voice combined with direct yet respectful eye contact throughout the exchange.

An employee expressing enthusiasm when talking about an upcoming task they have been assigned using upbeat vocal inflections along with animated hand gestures helps get everyone excited about working together on this new venture instead of feeling overwhelmed by its potential challenges ahead.

unlocking the power of paraverbal communication at work

Components of paraverbal communication

Now you’ve seen an example of paraverbal communication in action – as far as you can when reading and not hearing the sentences – let’s go deeper into what options you have available to you.

The components that make up paraverbal communication include:

  • Tone – The quality or sound produced by speaking
  • Pitch – The highness or lowness with which someone speaks
  • Volume – How loud or soft one’s voice is when speaking
  • Speed – How quickly one speaks (I am guilty of speaking so fast, it’s often something my students who have English as a further language comment on)
  • Pauses – Taking breaks between words for effect
  • Inflection – Changing the pitch at certain points during speech for emphasis on certain words/phrases
  • Emphasis – Placing extra stress on particular syllables within a word for added effect.

In practice, you probably don’t think much about any of these elements as you speak day-to-day. A lot of this stuff is subconscious.

However, it’s worth knowing about especially if you have a big presentation coming up or a difficult meeting to navigate, so you can think through how you want to say your piece.

Read next: 15 Practical Tips to Improve Project Communication.

Why we use paraverbal techniques

Using paraverbal techniques can help project managers communicate their messages more clearly and effectively while fostering better relationships with team members.

I know that seems like buzzwords, but by being aware of how you use your voice when communicating with others, project managers can ensure that their messages are heard accurately and understood correctly by everyone involved in the conversation.

I used to have a sticky note on my monitor in my first project management job that said ‘speak up’ because I was known for talking too quietly. Being heard is the first  step, then making sure you say something worth listening to!

Tuning into how you say something can also help you show empathy and demonstrate authority (make sure your sentences end flat and don’t go up as questions).

How to use paraverbal communication effectively

Here are some tips for making the most of the ‘how’ when presenting information verbally.

Pay attention to your tone

Your tone of voice conveys emotion and meaning beyond just the words you are saying. Be mindful of how you’re speaking so that it reflects your intended message accurately.

Don’t be flippant or use too much sarcasm. I feel that the British have this down to a fine art: with people I know I’m often flippant and then have to backpedal so that they know I am taking it seriously.

Make eye contact

Whatever you say, however you say it, make sure you making eye contact with the person you are talking to.

Eye contact helps create an atmosphere of trust between two people by showing that you are engaged with them. Making eye contact also shows respect for the other person’s ideas and opinions. You care enough about what they are saying to lift your eyes from your phone for a few minutes.

When I’m in a meeting room, speaking to a group, I go round the room and make sure my eyes land briefly on each person. That’s harder to do in a presentation setting, but I try to make sure I don’t only make eye contact with the front row. I do make an effort to let my gaze room.

If you feel awkward about making eye contact, or know there is someone in the team who struggles with eye contact, try looking at a spot on their forehead or between their eyes. It kind of looks the same but without the awkwardness of looking into someone’s eyes.

Read next: 10 Tips for Presenting at Work

Use gestures (sparingly)

You can tell when politicians have been coached in body language. The gesturing with a closed fist with the thumb on top (instead of pointing, which is considered rude), the expansive stance on the stage.

You don’t have to copy those, but look at the people in your workplace and see what they do with their hands. What makes someone look confident? And what makes someone look unconfident?

Gestures can help emphasize certain points or make a conversation more interesting by adding visual elements into it. However, be sure not to overdo it; too many gestures can become distracting or overwhelming for others involved in the conversation.

I would suggest avoiding gestures on Zoom or Teams calls. Web conferencing shows someone so little of your body that bringing your hands into the frame often looks weird and uncoordinated instead of punchy and natural.

Listen actively

Active listening involves paying close attention to what someone else is saying while providing feedback through facial expressions, nods, and other forms of body language that show understanding without interrupting them mid-sentence.

This will help ensure everyone feels heard during conversations at work.

Elizabeth having coffee

Strategies for improving your paraverbal skills

How can you get better at doing all this? I think controlling my speech, talking loudly, trying to stop fiddling with the fingernails and hair (although I still do that on web conferencing where they can’t see) and making sure I speak in a low, calm register (a tip from the voice training of Margaret Thatcher) has helped me be perceived as a safe pair of hands at work.

I have also spent a long time trying to cut ‘um’ and ‘err’ from what I say, and public speaking has really helped with that. Think about joining Toastmasters as a way to learn more about public speaking and getting your message across.

Other things you can do include:

  • Practicing mindfulness to help you better understand how others may interpret your paraverbal cues, such as tone and volume.
  • Observing experienced communicators interact with each other and reflecting on what they do. Techniques like modulating speech patterns according to context and making appropriate use of pauses are things you can copy.
  • Recording yourself speaking aloud gives you an opportunity to hear back exactly how your messages sound before delivering them live, which allows room for adjustments if needed to avoid sending any mixed signals.

Common mistakes to avoid

Let me preface this by saying that the thing with mistakes is that they are only mistakes in a certain context. In some cases, doing a behavior, or saying something in a particular way might be exactly the right thing to do.

Having said that, here are some pitfalls to consider when you are reflecting on how your spoken messages come across.

Speaking too quickly or slowly

Both extremes can make it difficult for listeners to follow along with what you’re saying and can cause confusion or frustration.

Not varying your tone enough

Monotone speech can sound robotic and lack emotion which makes it harder for people to connect with what you’re saying. This might happen if you’re feeling anxious about what you are saying and just want to get it over with.

Overusing vocal inflections

Ending too many sentences with rising intonation may come across as insincere or overly dramatic depending on the context.

The impact of technology on paraverbal communication

This all works great when the person is in front of you and you can respond to their own verbal and non-verbal cues, moderating your speech and adjusting to what you see and hear.

But what about when they are the other side of a screen?

Technology has had a profound impact on the way we communicate with one another, and paraverbal communication is no exception. In some ways, it has forced us to be better, to think through what we are saying, be more concise and better at turn-taking.

However, this also means that certain nuances of paraverbal communication may be lost due to technological limitations or misunderstandings caused by language barriers.

Strategies for overcoming technological barriers in the workplace

As a team leader, you want your team to be able to talk together without misunderstanding and in a way that builds confidence and trust. In virtual teams, that is hugely helped by being a great facilitator.

Use the tech available to you including reaction buttons and ‘hands up’ features. Encourage others to do the same.

Encourage people to have their cameras on. I always try to have my camera on and it’s fine when everyone else is. Recently I attended a call and I was the only one with my camera on. Eventually I turned it off because it felt too weird. Set the expectation for meetings that you are all camera on when it makes sense to do so.

Invite contributions from everyone. Ask if further clarification is needed. Be alert to what is going on during the call and watch out for disengagement.

By taking these measures into consideration when working with remote teams using technology-based mediums, project managers can help ensure that everyone involved understands what is being said and ultimately foster better collaboration within their organization.

Before you go…

Improve your communication with my Visual Communications for Project Managers Workshop.

visual commsmockup gif
Watch my workshop on visual comms for project managers.