Communication is a key skill in the workplace. Companies can fail or succeed based on how effectively their people can convey vision or interpret direction, with something as simple as a poorly written email having the potential to cause major damage within that company’s culture; conversely, a powerful, well-delivered speech can inspire and motivate an entire organisation.
Not everybody is a strong communicator, though. While some people seemingly have a natural way with words, many have to develop this ability from scratch. Regardless of where you fit in on this spectrum, it’s crucial to recognise the importance of possessing good speaking and listening skills.
So, whether you’re a job seeker, a new hire or the head of the whole organisation, there is always something to be learned. This is how to improve your communication skills, one small step at a time…
1. Understand Body Language
Body language, or nonverbal communication, is a subtle art that has the potential to say an awful lot and can be applied in any number of situations. As a leader, for instance, standing up straight and adopting a proper posture when addressing a room full of people suggests that you are confident and comfortable in your responsibility; all good orators understand that how you say something is just as important as what you say.
It’s just as important in a one-on-one situation, too. When you’re at a job interview or an appraisal, always maintain eye contact when you are speaking to someone. Looking out of the window or at the floor suggests that you either don’t really believe what you’re saying or that you’re not interested.
Don’t just pay attention to how your own body language is coming across, either – try to read the other person’s. Somebody might be telling you that they agree with you out loud, but if they are fidgeting or avoiding eye contact, it suggests that they actually might not. Human beings subconsciously rely on nonverbal communication in their interactions, so never forget to read – and speak – between the lines.
2. Encourage Interaction
From experience, sitting through a two-hour PowerPoint presentation on benefits realisation management without falling asleep is a challenge. Seriously. Good communication is a two-way street, so make sure people get involved – nobody likes to be talked at for two hours straight on the world’s most boring topic, after all.
In the context of a group, ask questions (even if they are hypothetical). Bring up interesting points that make people think, and physically utilise your audience members to keep everyone on their toes. Blaming the subject matter for being too bland is not an excuse – it’s your responsibility to communicate things in an effective and engaging way.
The same principles apply in a one-on-one situation as well. Drive the conversation by digging deeper into what the other person is telling you, while always seeking to clarify any instructions. If you’ve been given a task, don’t hesitate to send a follow-up email, either, clearing up any potential confusion over what exactly it is you’re meant to be doing.
3. Speak ‘Extemporaneously’
It might look unpronounceable, but extemporaneous communication is highly effective. Practised primarily by lawyers when speaking in court, it is essentially the art of using minimal bullet point notes to keep your speech on track, without remembering or rehearsing word for word what you are going to say.
Although this might sound like a strange approach – the conventional wisdom is that preparation is everything, after all – speaking in this manner allows you the flexibility and freedom to judge your audience’s reaction and engage in any points of debate as they happen. This results in a far more interesting and engaging discussion and makes the audience an active participant without them even realising.
Be careful, though. If you’re not 100% comfortable with what you’re talking about, the potential for things to go wrong is very real; the last thing you want is for your mind to go blank without any notes to rely on!
4. Know Your Audience
In any situation, in any role, knowing who you are communicating with is key to understanding how to get your point across or ascertain the information you need. Within a company, this may require time, so that you can get to know individual team members and how they operate; some employees might respond well to criticism, for instance, but others might work better when encouraged.
On a broader scale, it’s usually enough to apply some degree of common sense. For example, if you are writing an email to your boss, you should keep things courteous, professional and focused on work; when you then go to pick up the office post from the mail room, though, it’s perfectly fine to talk about West Ham with Trevor the mail guy. These might be two completely different styles of communication, but they are relevant to the respective audience; they both also result in the cultivation and development of two different types of workplace relationships.
Always tailor your approach accordingly and understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to communication.
There is a wise, old saying – often propagated in military environments – that you have two eyes, two ears but only one mouth, and that you should apply their usage in that ratio. Put more plainly: to be an effective communicator, you should listen far more than you speak.
This is because it is easier to create solutions when you are more aware of the issues. This doesn’t mean listening passively, either; people can spot when you’re giving off the illusion of taking things on board. Actually truly listen to what you are being told and react to it accordingly; don’t disrespect their confidence by reeling off a formulaic response or batting their concerns away.
Finally, don’t be a terrible conversationalist. There’s nothing more annoying than talking to someone who constantly interrupts you or talks over you; this is a fundamental connection flaw on their part and demonstrates why it’s so important that you don’t make the same mistake. Always remember: without someone to listen, there is no communication.
6. Get to the Point
We’ve all been there, waiting patiently for a simple answer to a simple question that soon morphs into the full-blown life story of the other party. While the more polite and tolerable among us may kindly nod and smile through gritted teeth, this approach isn’t conducive to a professional environment: instead, everyone needs to be straight to the point.
This doesn’t mean that conversation should be discouraged; it just means that communication is more effective when things are short, clear and concise. Waffling on for 10 minutes can make people switch off or the most significant points to take away can get lost in the mire. By focusing only on what is important, nothing can get lost in translation.
Don’t be too vague, though; the idea is to be brief yet specific – not just short for the sake of it. Read over your emails before you send them to ensure you have the balance right, while in your verbal encounters focus on being coherent and succinct.
7. Avoid Distractions
Nothing kills the art of conversation quite like pulling your phone out and reading a message (or, worse, scrolling through Facebook). Even if the offending party tells you that they are still listening, everything about their behaviour tells you that they’re not; whether it’s in a meeting, an appraisal or even on a date, it’s never acceptable and you shouldn’t do it.
If you’re in the middle of something and you receive an important phone call, be polite and courteous and inform the other person that you have to take the call – otherwise, ignore it and call back later or quickly answer and let that person know you’re with someone and you’ll call back.
Everybody is busy and people feel that they need to multitask in order to manage their workloads, but reading emails when someone is trying to tell you something comes down to basic courtesy. Even for a couple of minutes, put everything else on hold and focus on the person (or people) that are in front of you.
8. Imitate Others
Whenever you’re trying to improve any skill, be it golf, cooking or communication, a useful approach is to study the experts in that field. Learning about how they do things and imitating or taking inspiration from their behaviour and routines can sometimes offer an insight into what makes them so successful.
If you regularly speak to large groups of people, for example, study footage of renowned orators such as Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey. You don’t have to start wearing a black turtleneck or adopting every single hand gesture, but you can get an idea of why their presence is so magnetic, such as the emphasis on posture, tone and delivery. You can even learn a thing or two from stand-up comedians; the jokes might not be appropriate but the air of confidence and the impeccable sense of timing they convey can be translated into any form of public speaking.
Don’t ignore sources of inspiration that are closer to home, too. Are there any particular individuals that you feel completely at ease talking to? People who take on board what you say while getting their own message across respectfully and effectively? Utilise them. Take the best components of their approaches and employ them to your own.
9. Record Yourself
This is a practical technique that can directly improve your communication skills, even if it may cause you to cringe at the sound of your own voice.
It’s extremely helpful, though, as it’s almost guaranteed that you will notice certain mannerisms or habits that you don’t realise when you’re actually speaking – and which nobody else will mention to you. For example, if you say ‘um’ or ‘you know’ (as a lot of people tend to do) at the start of every sentence, this can be quite annoying to listeners; it’s only when you hear it for yourself that you can critique and improve how you come across.
Of course, make sure you have the other person’s awareness and permission first, and make it clear why exactly you are recording; when they find out, they may offer their own tips – or even follow your lead and do the same to develop their own skills.
As you can see, there are plenty of activities you can engage in to improve your communication skills. It’s worth taking the time, too, as employers highly value people who can both convey information and take it on board. Being a strong and effective communicator won’t just benefit you at work, either; it will have a positive effect on every facet of your personal and professional life.
Do you have any other tips or ideas to help improve your communication skills? Let us know in the comments below!