Communication between humans changed forever with the power of speech; that is, the ability to express thoughts and feelings through the articulation of sounds. Words, language as we now know it sets us apart as a species. Mark Pagel describes language as the most “powerful and dangerous result of natural selection”, viewing speech and language as the voice of our genes allows us to see how humans have become the planet’s most dominant species through an aptitude for social learning. As humans, our ability to speak enables us to learn, to share ideas and to cooperate in groups. 

There are ever growing studies on the ability of animals to understand communications from humans; and on the systems they use to communicate with one another. Take a look at these examples:

Degrees of sophistication aside, there’s no doubt that we are not alone in our communicative nature. But our system of alphabet, speaking and listening is far more advanced that anything the dolphin or the chimp could hope to achieve. 

Our lives, memories, dreams and imagination are built on this foundation – but it’s a skill we all take for granted. A 2013 Science World Report suggests that we speak an average of 7,000 or 20,000 words a day depending on our gender. Now, I’ll frame that statistic with a quote from my very own baby book, which will help you establish which is which: “My daughter started talking at 18 Months old and hasn’t been quiet since” [Dave Baldwin, circa 1995]. Apparently it’s not my fault – the increased prevalence of a protein called FOXP2 in my brain is accountable. It’s thought that the FOXP2 protein (of which females are shown to have 30% more than males) is essential for the production of speech and is a key driver of communication abilities in mammals. In theory this could allow researchers to better understand other species that may or may not possess the protein, such as our Neanderthal predecessors, and potentially trace back the evolutionary origin of speech, which is currently a source of much disagreement.

Be it 7,000 or 20,000 words a day, we are talking about (pardon the pun) a lot of talking. Although considering we are capable of thinking around 50,000 thoughts a day according to the National Science Foundation, that’s only a conversion rate of between 14%-40% from thought to voice. We have the potential to say a lot more than we do; but quantity isn’t indicative of quality that’s for sure.

Before the powers of speech, we relied on our demeanour, gestures and body language to convey our thoughts and ideas (as the ape above demonstrates so wonderfully for me). The importance of these elements hasn’t been eradicated since we found our vocal chords. But there’s often confusion over what’s and how’s here. 

We’ve all sat in that corporate presentation or in a university lecture where we’re told unequivocally that each of our communications is delivered by the 7-38-55 rule. For anyone unfamiliar with this, the ‘rule’ is a result of Albert Mehrabian’s study from the 1970s and states that face to face communication is transported according to a 7-38-55 split, where 7% is the words we say, 38% is how we say our words, and 55% are our non-verbal transmissions. Although the rule is mostly misinterpreted (it is frequently taken to apply to each and every communication, when in fact it is contextual and focuses more on any (in)congruence between the three elements) it represents a struggle between our subconscious, our intentions, thoughts and our desire to communicate.

Suffice to say, a good communicator can balance all of these elements and align them with their personality to make sure all of their messages are clear and situation appropriate,

So yes, personality plays a part in all this; it likely dictates our ‘conversation conversion rate’ described above, as well as the weighting of our communication style. This is perfectly summarised in this Psych Today Blog . We all say different things, in different ways, for different reasons, and most of the time don’t give it a second thought.

What happens then, when we are forced to communicate? By forced; when we find ourselves in a pre-meditated speaking situation. Giving a wedding speech? Presenting a new business to potential investors? A job interview or a stage audition? We’ve evolved to speak without giving it a second thought, but outside of our social interactions there are increasing demands on us to hold our own when speaking publicly. Why does that become so difficult for most of us?

According to public speaking expert Steve Corney, the reasons people struggle with making their voice heard are not as simple as we think:

“The world we live in today is so different, for a number of reasons to the world 20 or 30 years ago. We have become black and white. In attempt to play it safe and make sure that we don’t overstep the mark and shine we have made an unconscious choice as a society to play it safe and choose grey. In grey land there is no fear of being judged, no fear of failure, or your message not hitting the mark. The problem is grey is not memorable, grey is not authentic and grey is not us!

We need to accept that in order to be unique, to be ourselves we need to inject our personality in what we say. We have to believe in what we say as be so passionate about it, it becomes impossible not to sit up and pay attention. The world has become a competitive place and like paper beats rock someone who is willing to invest the time and effort into making their presentation skills amazing will win every time!”

The risks of not being able to speak confidently are well documented: public speaking tends to be a very public affair! You don’t have to look far for some examples of when it goes wrong. It’s no wonder we’re harbouring a reluctance to converse face to face in an open forum.

Deciding to improve on something we feel we should be able to do naturally, makes the challenge of self-improvement all the more tricky. Public speaking falls into this category. Many people describe the same difficulties when learning to meditate and having to focus on active breathing. Not only that, but if it’s something we are uncomfortable with – opportunities to improve can be easily avoided… the evolution of communication means that more and more we are avoiding face to face encounters and replacing them with emails, phone calls, social media and PowerPoint presentations. 

The infographic below (kindly created by Cisco with data from The Economist Intelligence Unit) illustrates the ‘Power of in Person’ – enough to make you think twice about choosing email every time.

Our most powerful evolutionary trait is being stretched – it needs to fit increasingly wide social circles, compete with digital media and set us apart in the ever competitive business world. If we want to keep face to face communication alive, we need to hone our skills just as we would on the footy field. 

Steve Corney has developed an online course which allows participants to develop their public speaking skills completely on their time. He explains that “If you break public speaking down into the key skills and components you have speaking technique, delivery style, personality and voice.  The conventional public speaking training will get people in a group, have them stand up and deliver their presentation in an attempt to hone and perfect their skills. Enter nerves, apprehension, fear, audience interaction, all of which have nothing to do with training and developing ones speaking skills.  The online course coupled with its unique speaking skills activities allows users to train specific areas of their speaking skills without the worry of an audience or nerves. Once these skills have been developed participants are encourage to then inject an audience and nerves into their training to put their newly strengthened speaking muscles to the test.”

If like me, you're known for your chatter and confident demeanour - does that automatically predispose us towards excellence in meaningful communications? It seems not. As I sit here comfortably word-smithing from the comfort of 'behind the laptop'; I find myself wondering just how effectively I could stand up in front of a crowd of 500 and deliver the same effects.

Steve has kindly invited me to take his Speaker Muscle training, a course I can take from the comfort and safety of 'behind the laptop' - genius. You can find a link to the online course here.. I'll be sure to let you know how I get on. Thanks Steve!

You can view a full size/downloadable version of this infographic here
I’ve now officially been an adult for 10 years. I’ve been legally entitled to drink alcohol for the same amount of time, and yeah, I can do that pretty well – I mean, I know that if I go out and drink more than two glasses of wine, someone will be carrying me home, and I know that if I don’t drink at all the only effect it will have on my life is a positive one. Driving: goes without saying – I’m great at that (though we won’t discuss navigation right now) because I spent hours (and hours) taking lessons to show me the right way to do it before I was allowed to go out and make my own decisions behind the wheel.

Growing up in the UK, as in most other countries across the globe, a driver on the roads who doesn’t know what they’re doing is heavily penalised by the law, and verbally by fellow road users. Driving without the proper experience would make you a danger to yourself, other road users and pedestrians alike. It makes sense, right? We throw people out of bars for being drunk and disorderly, don’t serve alcohol to anyone who appears intoxicated; there’s a shared appreciation for the safety of the community and its future. Just because as an adult of age we get entitlement to a driver’s license and the freedom to throw out that fake ID Darren made for us in year 10, we don’t automatically know how to drive or where the best clubs in town are.

You can see where I’m going with this, because like me, you consider yourself to be pretty well educated. You more than likely fall into the c50% of adults who drink alcohol each year, and there’s a pretty good chance that you’re one of 15.2 million women and 18.1 million men in Great Britain who held a full car driving licence in 2005. Or are one of the 17 million Australians who drive a motor vehicle.

The vote. An overlooked and neglected right of adulthood. We get given it, but who teaches us how to use it? Talking politics has become the new talking money – we simply can’t discuss that Mavis! In 2010 only 44% of 18-24 year olds cast their vote in the UK general election. Would we accept almost half of 18-24 year olds driving on our roads without ever having taken a lesson? I don’t think so.

Educated? That’s how I described us. What about your political education? Like myself before, there are thousands of young adults finding themselves with the new responsibility of voting – casting a vote to determine the party (or parties as it may be) who make the choices governing important issues for their future, and the future of their families. Call me a control freak, but I wouldn’t send my grandpa out to buy me new shoes even if I’d sent him with a Polaroid and 12 bullet points of guidance.

Not once was politics brought up at home growing up, despite coming from a very open family and having the stickiest of all sticky beaks. I was educated at a good school, but the closest we got to learning about politics was some hushed whispers in Year 8 about the guy at the front of Math class whose parents obviously voted Tory. So parents aren’t talking to their children about the state of the nations – leaving them only to pick up hearsay from the dinner table. Schools aren’t doing it, because as once with Sex Education; that’s something for the home and ‘our institution can’t be seen to show any specific political inclination’.

Bullshit. My parents gave me sex ed, and so did my school. But I sure as hell haven’t told either what my favourite position is.

This gap is inevitably filled by popular media, the first place young adults look for their insights. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this is not going to necessarily be the most balanced source of information.

We should be encouraging young people to take an interest in politics by creating an understanding of what owning a vote means, and in turn, how to use it. We don’t need to wear our ‘I Heart Gillard’ sweaters in public. But we do need to make sure that populations of voters understand the implications of making an informed choice.

The compulsory vote in Australia; considered an assault on democracy by some, does increase the numbers who turn out to vote (driven entirely by the hefty $20 fine, I’m sure?!); a boast of 94% voter turnout in the previous federal election is a strong one, even accounting for the estimated 10% of unregistered yet eligible voters. More worryingly according to the Australian Election Commission, a third of the overall number of eligible voters who are not enrolled are between 18 and 24 years old. Kevin Rudd had mobilising the youth vote central to his 2013 campaign, and look how that worked out.

A forced, ill-considered vote in Australia is as much use as the vote un-cast in the UK. With the proper education, and skills to seek out and analyse relevant information – we will see what’s in it for us and feel compelled to have our say.

I’m equally at fault – I once again find myself in country where I am not yet entitled to a say in its leadership, it’s taken me 10 years as a voter and several thousand air miles to put my hand up and say ‘help’.

Somewhere along the way, ‘Vote’ and ‘Veto’ have become synonymous anagrams.

So let’s talk dirty. Talk politics. After all, if we don’t contribute we can’t criticise. And that, Prime Minister, is what the fuss is all Abbott.