Every year employers are surveyed about what they seek in candidates for job openings. Each year communication is listed among the top 3. It has been for years. This module introduces you to some best practices around professional communication.

[USC Career Center] 1. Face-to-Face Communication from Midnight Hour Studios on Vimeo.

Step 1 – Learn

Read the overview of best practices for conducting business on the phone.

Step 2 – Practice and Analyze

Create a fun video of yourself telling a short story. Then you will look for communication patterns and habits that you can build on.

Face-To-Face Communication Module


Introduction: Putting Your Game Face On

Have you seen this diagram before…or something like it?

Body language and tone are just as important as the words you speak. In a work setting, it’s important that your words are congruent with your tone, face, and posture. Sometimes we have to think about how we come across to others so that our message is understood, free from distractions.

What do the experts say?


To put it simply, communication is about the sender and receiver.

Experts talk about five basic communication issues:

  1. Encoding-Decoding: A sender encodes the message based on the intended meaning; a receiver decodes the message based on his or her understanding. We have succeeded in communicating only when the message decoded is the same as the original idea.
  2. Intention: The sender must craft the message so that the intended meaning is clear; the receiver needs to understand the intent.
  3. Perception: What you know, believe, feel, and think are based on prior experiences. People experience the world differently. Therefore, communicators must take into account each person’s perspectives when they encode and decode messages. For example, the perception of a college student is quite different than a 5-year-old, and so we adjust our language, tone and body language to fit the situation.
  4. Dialogue: Communication is a collaborative process. You need to work together to achieve successful communication. If one person doesn’t collaborate, communication breaks down. This happens in politics when we listen to only one side of an argument.
  5. Noise: Did you ever try talking to someone while standing next to a jack-hammer? It’s impossible. Noise is anything that distorts the message whether physical (like a jack-hammer) jargon (like slang), inappropriate body language (like not facing you) facial expression (like a frown), inattention (like texting while you’re talking), disinterest (like yawning), and cultural differences (like accents or eye contact). Can you recall an incident where noise made understanding impossible?

What About Content?

Words matter. It doesn’t take much to offend someone (create noise). As an employee, indiscriminant words end up reflecting poorly on you and your work group. Think before you speak, and put yourself in the shoes of the listener before you talk. Have you ever heard someone at work use words or tell stories that offend you? An office discussion is different than one at home. Never use off-color humor, stereotyping, profanity, and criticism of others.


Encoding (Word Choice)

Remember that noise can subvert the point of your message. Filling out the conversation with your opinions about topics that aren’t pertinent to your work is taking the chance of being controversial and/or offensive. Using bad grammar may undermine how knowledgeable you come across. Employing slang, idioms, and social and historical references from your culture can hinder understanding when you communicate with a person from a different culture. Using abusive or off-color language is always unexpected and offensive.

Non-Verbal Elements

Non-verbal elements include your tone and body language. Research claims that only about 7% of the meaning that you communicate is contained in the words. The rest of the message comes from non-verbal signals or cues contained in your tone (38%)and your body language (55%).

If you want to communicate effectively and avoid misunderstandings, you need to understand the importance of nonverbal signals. Whether tone or body language, your nonverbal signals can affect your message in these ways:

Non-verbal signals:

  • can repeat your verbal message as when you yell, “Don’t!”
  • can contradict your verbal message; frowning and say everything is fine.
  • can substitute for your message. Your eyes and eyebrows can often convey a far more vivid message than words do.
  • may add to or complement your message; patting a person on the back in addition to saying “congratulations.”
  • may accent or underline your message. Shrugging your shoulders or clasping your hands together can reinforce a message.


Friendly people make us feel good. Grouchy people upset us. The difference between the two is tone. Tone includes volume, emotion, and emphasis. Just listen to people talk in a language you don’t speak. You can tell if they are friends or competitors simply by tone. When you are at work always, adopt a friendly tone.

If you think the customer is upset, check your perception. For example, you can simply ask, “Is there something I’ve said that is making you feel uncomfortable?”

If the answer is “yes,” you have a chance to fix the problem. If it is “no,” you can proceed with the conversation free of concern. One thing that supervisors comment on are the speech habits of some millennial students.

Speech Habits in American Youth Culture

There are four typical habits that supervisors usually don’t like:

  • Uptalk
  • Overuse of “like” or “you know”
  • The Growl/Vocal Fry
  • Overuse of “ums”

“Uptalk” is a common speech pattern when the student ends a sentence with a rise in the voice that sounds like a question. Young people use it often. Older listeners think the student lacks confidence when they use uptalk voice patterns. It’s as if they question their own statements.

Saying “like” or “you know” several times in a sentence can be very distracting. The listener can lose the speaker’s train of thought, and they sometimes conclude the speaker is unsure of themselves and uncertain about their statements.

The growl/vocal fry occurs when students end their sentence in a gravely tone that pops or growls. To some bosses it creates an impression of insincerity or shallowness.

Almost everyone uses an “um” when they talk now and then. But when it is overused the listener gets impatient and it leads to interruptions.

These speech habits are not right or wrong, they simply reflect the culture you were raised in. However, some studies indicate that bosses and managers deny leadership roles to people with these habits, especially where they represent the organization to clients. It is similar to a strong accent that makes communication difficult. Ask your boss about the speech habits they notice.

Body Language

Body language cues include eye contact, facial expressions, posture, gestures, and touch.

It’s especially important to remember that cultural differences influence body language signals and their interpretation. What may be obvious in one culture can mean something different in another culture. Eye contact is a common example. In American majority culture, we are taught that looking people in the eye is a form of respect. In some eastern cultures, the opposite is true: looking at a person full in the face can be considered rude and disrespectful.


Eliminate distractions that will get in the way of listening. If warranted, provide a private setting.

TIP: If your attention is drawn away during an interaction, it’s okay to let the speaker know that you were distracted for a moment. If you admit that you checked out for a bit and ask for clarification, the speaker will know that you were trying to listen and just may appreciate your admitting to your brief lapse.

The social context heavily influences communication. Your job title, age, gender, etc. all impact the message between sender and receiver. The key is to accept that and work within the context to serve your customer as best you can. Some things about the context you simply can’t change. But the more you understand it, the better you can negotiate it successfully.

In Closing


In short, your goal is to:

  1. Convey your part of the content clearly
  2. with well-defined intentions
  3. while taking into account the perspective of your fellow participant(s)
  4. and considering the context

Verbal communication is just as important in your personal life as in your professional life. By improving your verbal communication skills, you will connect, build rapport, earn respect, gain influence, and your message is likely to be better understood.

Step 2 – Application

Please review the following, it is not necessary to complete the activities:

  1. Think of information you provide or deliver to a typical customer or co-worker. Maybe it’s explaining a policy or a process or procedure. Pick something that takes at least a minute to get across.
  2. Encode your message (write out the content). Use clear language and organize it for understanding. Come up with a closing remark that requires your customers to indicate their level of understanding or invites them to ask questions.
  3. Record yourself on your laptop camera – practice imparting the content you outlined above. Keep adjusting your tone and body language until you get an approach that:
    1. helps you communicate expertise, respect, and interest
    2. supports the real meaning behind your words.

If you simply cannot find a camera to record yourself, talk to a mirror.

Step 3 – Reflection

Thinking about the answers to these questions will help you be more successful in your new position. It is not necessary to formally submit anything:

  1. What are some of the most common messages you have to communicate verbally in your job?
  2. Which of these messages are the most difficult or challenging? Or, which ones do customers tend to misunderstand most often?
  3. What changes did you make in your non-verbal presentation?
  4. List 3 things you practiced in front of the mirror or video recording that actually improved the message communicated.

1 Adapted from the USC Career Center Student Training Materials

Last modified: Tuesday, 22 October 2019, 2:43 PM