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Communication Skills, Report Writing, and Courtroom Testimony for Forensic Analysts

Verbal Communication

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Photo of two men having a verbal conversation
National Institute of Justice (NIJ) (see reuse policy).

While each aspect of the different verbal communication methods has unique characteristics, there are several general attributes of effective presentations that are common to all. For instance, positive body language is a necessary ingredient for developing relationships with any audience. Solid eye contact, enthusiastic hand gestures, smiling on a regular basis, and nodding one's head occasionally suggest confidence in and enthusiasm for the message communicated. Many presenters make the mistake of turning their backs to an audience so that they can look directly at their slides or other visual materials. This posture seems natural (and protective) but creates distance between the speaker and receiver(s). A much better approach is the "weather reporter" model, which involves standing along side the material of interest, bringing attention to the relevant portion, and facing your audience as you address the issue.

Our use of voice and movement are just as important as body language and may operate in a complementary fashion. Speakers with monotone voices devoid of inflection who stand rigidly in one place for long periods cause their audiences to daydream regardless of the topic. The volume and intonation of our voices should change regularly and strategically to emphasize certain points, create and reduce tension, and stimulate and inform our audience. Movement works in a similar fashion. As we move from one physical space to another, audience members must un-focus and refocus their eyes as well as change the positions of their heads and (sometimes) their bodies. While these physical acts are rather minor compared to more strenuous movements, they do serve to create a minor but heightened state of arousal. Of course, constant movement is distracting and speakers need to be aware of this anxious habit.

Another important aspect of effective presentations is the proper use of supporting materials. In our technological age, presenters have access to a vast repertoire of sounds and images in the form of music, video clips, still photography, graphics, and sound bites that can be used individually or in combination. Unfortunately, many speakers fail to manage them properly for maximum effect. Instead of their dramatic revelation at just the right moment, presenters may provide visual and verbal stimuli haphazardly, often without any direct acknowledgement. Additionally, their display may serve primarily to keep the speaker informed of the current topic rather than meet the informational needs of the audience. Best practices suggest that presenters select materials that are complementary to their interpersonal styles, supportive of their major points-of-view, revealed at the right moments, and reinforcing of their verbal messages.

A final set of considerations includes flow and timing. Flow refers to the order in which points are presented, the ease with which transitions are experienced, and the ability to open and close talks so that audience impact is maximized. Some speakers like to start with a bang and end softly, while others like to build the anticipation and end on a high note. In my experience, it is best to set the stage with compelling discussion in the beginning and change the tempo throughout your presentation to maintain interest. Timing, the second interrelated issue, plays a role in that information should be divulged when the audience is prepared to accept it. Thus, difficult-to-comprehend material should be described after the proper background is presented, and controversial material should be revealed once trust has been established with the audience. On a minor note, presentations should begin and end as scheduled to avoid audience unease.

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