How to Improve Your Communication Skills (Tips & Examples)

Less “blah, blah, blah”, more “aha”.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Communication Skills

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 organization.

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 recognize the importance of communication and to possess good speaking and listening skills.

So, whether you’re a jobseeker, a new hire unsure on how to talk to the boss, or the head of the whole organization, there is always something to be learned. This is how to improve your communication skills, one small step at a time…

What are communication skills?

Communication skills are a group of soft skills that allow us to interact positively and efficiently with one another. We use communication, which can roughly be divided into the categories of verbal and nonverbal, to exchange ideas, accurately pass on information, express our needs and experiences, and ultimately connect with those around us.

Types of communication skills

Though we often associate communication with talking, there are several ways in which we can convey and exchange information. Let’s look at the six main forms of communication:

  • Verbal communication, or using spoken words to pass on a message to another person.
  • Written communication, which is used a lot in the workplace, from email exchanges and instant messages to reports, briefs and beyond.
  • Active listening. As a listener, you carry half of the responsibility for a successful conversation!
  • Nonverbal communication, as in body language, facial expressions and eye contact, which play a vital role in conveying information.
  • Visual communication. This refers to utilizing visual elements, like graphics and fonts, to share information.
  • Empathy, as it allows you to better “read the room” and get in the listener’s shoes, which is essential for communicating effectively.

Why are they important?

Effective communication between yourself and your clients or colleagues is imperative for carrying out your work efficiently. When you can clearly explain what you expect from others, as well as what your own needs, questions or limits are, you can prevent errors from happening that would require time and money to remedy.

Good communication is also essential in building trust and forming positive relationships with those around you. The more you can communicate calmly and with respect with fellow team members, the better; it will keep misunderstandings to a minimum and hopefully de-escalate situations before they become too disruptive.

How to improve your communication skills

Here are 15 ways in which you can become a more efficient and confident communicator in the workplace and beyond.

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 example, 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’re 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’re 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 realization 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’re hypothetical). Bring up interesting points that make people think, and physically utilize 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 and miscommunication over what exactly it is you’re meant to be doing.

3. Speak “extemporaneously”

It might look unpronounceable, but extemporaneous communication is highly effective.

Practiced 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’re 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 it makes the audience an active participant without them even realizing.

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 examples, 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’re 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 the Minor League with Trevor the mail guy.

These might be two completely different styles of communication, but they’re 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.

5. Listen

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’s easier to create solutions when you’re 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’re 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’re still listening, everything about their behavior 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. Observe 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 behavior 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? Utilize 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 realize 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.

10. Read more books

Reading more books or even listening to podcasts and audiobooks frequently can be a great way to add new words and expressions to your vocabulary, which in turn will allow you to express yourself more accurately and concisely.

Not only that, but the activity will expose you to new ideas and broaden your knowledge, too, which can enable you to simultaneously improve your cultural awareness and ability to interact with people from various backgrounds and with various interests.

Plus, reading can slow cognitive decline and even lower stress levels, which also benefits you professionally!

11. Mind your tone

Here’s one thing we wish more people accepted to be true: your tone of voice matters just as much as what you say.

Indeed, good communicators pay attention not only to their words but also to how they’re relaying them. It doesn’t matter if your intentions are great, if you speak curtly to a colleague or don’t even turn to look at them when engaging in face-to-face conversation, the information you’re passing on to them is bound to be “tinted” by the emotional impact your actions have on them.

If your aim is to be regarded as someone who has a way with words, you must start paying attention to the way you deliver them.

12. Take public speaking classes

If you’ve ever spoken to someone who’s taken public speaking classes, chances are that they’ll have talked your ear off about it. (Which is proof the classes do work!)

Toastmasters clubs, for example, incorporate various activities into their group meetups, such as the infamous “ah counter”, to help people develop better communication skills. If you don’t know what that is, it’s when you count all your long pauses, overused words and filler sounds — such as “um” and “ah” — so you start paying more attention to them and, over time, eliminate them from your speech.

13. Develop your empathy

Though some wouldn’t think it, empathy can indeed be said to be a type of communication skill. The reason is because this soft skill allows us to relate to the people around us, which is fundamental when we’re trying to transmit and receive information.

If a colleague is stressed, unwell or otherwise struggling, empathy can help you tailor your message as well as time its delivery in a way that will maximize the chances of arriving at a common understanding.

Likewise, it can help you establish and maintain good relationships with those on your team, which also enhances teamwork and collaboration.

14. Build your confidence

If you look at inspirational speakers, they have one thing in common: they sound wholeheartedly sure of what they’re saying, speaking with conviction. After all, you can’t convince someone to pay attention to what you’re saying unless you yourself first and foremost believe in its significance.

Some of the tips we listed already, like taking public speaking classes, reading more books and observing speakers you look up to can really help you develop communication skills which are enviable. The more you practice and expose yourself to different communication methods, the more confidence you’ll gain as a speaker, presenter and professional.

15. Be yourself

Which brings us to our final bit of advice: authenticity.

Part of developing effective communication skills is developing or amplifying your own unique voice. Don’t be afraid to share your experiences and incorporate opinions and personal insights into your conversations: these things can add valuable additional information to what you’re already saying, making your words more memorable and impactful.

Of course, it takes a certain level of practice (and confidence!) to get comfortable with being honest and vulnerable in your exchanges with others. But, like any skill, it’s very much doable if you dedicate yourself to it!

Final thoughts

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, and even when communicating while remote working.

Do you have any other tips or ideas to help improve your communication skills? Let us know in the comments section below!

Originally published on February 22, 2018. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.