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Communication Skills - Start Here
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Have you ever struggled to get your message across?
Perhaps you tried pitching a groundbreaking project, you were chairing a departmental meeting, or you needed to deliver a compelling presentation. You gave it your best shot, but all you got back were blank looks and awkward silences.
Chances are, there wasn't much wrong with what you were trying to say; it's just that you needed to work on how you said it. In this article, we'll help you to become a better all-round communicator by addressing six areas of communication:
- Understanding the Basics.
- Planning Your Communications.
- Communicating Powerfully in Writing.
- Communicating Effectively Face-to-Face.
- Running Productive Meetings.
- Delivering Great Presentations.
1: Understanding the Basics
It's important to take a systematic approach to communication, given the wide range of channels that are available, such as emails, marketing materials, presentations, and other written and spoken forms.
A good place to start is with our article, The Communication Cycle, which covers the basics of using any medium. It explores a six-step process for organizing and presenting a message, and then learning from the feedback that you receive in return.
Remember, communication is a two-way process: as well as talking or delivering a message, it's important to listen to the other person's response. You can test how good your listening skills are with our quiz, and there is plenty of help available for boosting your understanding of what people are trying to communicate to you.
For example, you can learn how to listen empathically, which demonstrates your attentiveness and understanding of what's being said. It can also help to listen actively, which involves deferring judgment until you've heard everything that the other person has to say.
As you acquire these skills, you'll discover that developing your communication skills is as much about improving the quality of your relationships as it is about expressing yourself.
Success in business often depends on your ability to be tactful, developing empathy, and making the effort to appreciate other people's points of view. The more you arrive at shared understandings with colleagues and clients, the better you'll be able to create high-quality connections with them. Taken together, these skills can make your workplace happier, more cohesive, and more productive.
2: Planning Your Communications
The purpose of Communications Planning is to get the right message to the right people, in the right way. It sounds simple, but many people fail to plan their communications properly. This can lead to misunderstandings, frustration and missed opportunities.
One effective approach is to use a strategy framework to identify and understand your audience, and think about how best to reach it. Don't make assumptions. Listen intelligently to what your audience needs. Ask the right questions in the right way, to get as much information as possible during the planning phase.
When you're ready to compose your message, use tools like the Rhetorical Triangle to take account of people's expectations, the context of the message, and what you want your message to achieve. Also, you can use Monroe's Motivated Sequence to grab your audience's attention and create a compelling call to action.
You can also try to engage people's emotions with storytelling. This is a powerful, persuasive technique that can be used both to inform the audience and to establish some common ground.
Whatever the medium or style that you choose, remember to keep your message simple, and to avoid using jargon. Our article on the 7 Cs of Communication can help with this. Keep the information that you're presenting tightly organized in self-contained chunks that are easy to understand, and let simplicity and clarity be your guide.
3: Communicating Powerfully in Writing
No one wants to waste time decoding badly written emails, rambling reports, or over-complicated messages. That's why effective writing skills are a must.
Your written communications compete with many other messages, so you need to grab your readers' attention and ensure that they get important information as quickly as possible. This is where Inverted Pyramid Writing is useful, as it puts the key points at the top of your message.
Brevity, clarity and use of intelligent subject lines are essential strategies for effective email. Avoid rambling, using the wrong tone, and other common mistakes. This advice also applies to instant messaging (IM), but you must be even more concise with this, because lengthy blocks of text can be difficult to read and digest on IM.
Longer pieces of writing, such as business reports, also need to be organized clearly and logically, so that the reader knows exactly where to look for the information that he or she needs, and isn't put off by a mass of unstructured data.
4: Communicating Effectively Face-to-Face
Using small talk can put the other person at ease, but be sure to listen carefully to his responses. They can teach you a lot about his interests and values, and you can learn what kind of language to use to build rapport.
There may be times when you get "caught on the hop," for example if you find yourself having to answer an unexpected question, or being asked to cover for someone at a presentation at short notice. Our articles, Thinking on Your Feet and Impromptu Speaking Skills, can help you to handle these situations with confidence.
Similarly, you may get an unexpected chance to pitch your product or service to a potential client. While you may not have been prepared for the encounter, you can still take advantage of the opportunity if you have a compelling elevator pitch ready.
It's also worth remembering that you communicate with your appearance and body language long before you say a word, so it's important to make a good first impression. In fact, when people are talking about their feelings and emotions, the verbal part of their message may amount to as little as seven percent of the whole. A skillful communicator learns both to read and to use body language and visual clues to reinforce her message.
5: Running Productive Meetings
A meeting can be a forum for sharing great ideas, making bold decisions, and inspiring one another. However, in organizations where they're mishandled, people often consider them to be a poor use of their time. Effective meetings don't just happen, they require a specific set of communication skills. This Expert Interview podcast explores how to get more done in less time by simplifying and streamlining meetings.
Chances are, you've sat through meetings that drifted off topic, didn't have a clear objective, or were dominated by overbearing attendees. That can be tiresome, frustrating and unproductive, but it doesn't have to be that way. Our article, Running Effective Meetings, looks at how to keep your meeting well structured, focused on its goal, and efficient.
There's often a trade-off between paying attention to detail and keeping meetings streamlined. As a result, not every meeting will run to plan. If your meetings tend to wander off topic, you can use Dialogue Mapping to "restore order." This involves a facilitator, who records new ideas and comments on a whiteboard. Having a record of what was said is useful for future meetings. Also, when people see their statements written down, they feel that their points have been heard and don't need to repeat them.
You also have a better chance of enjoying brief, productive meetings if they are run by an experienced facilitator or chairman. He is usually skilled at:
- Designing and planning a meeting.
- Getting people involved with suitable ice breakers.
- Guiding the dynamic of the meeting.
- Recording the key points efficiently.
- Making sure that the participants understand what they need to do after the meeting.
There are a number of pitfalls to avoid with group communication. The foremost danger is that constructive disagreement may turn into conflict. Learning how to manage conflict will make you a more confident manager and can also ensure that the conflict is resolved positively. You should also avoid groupthink and cognitive bias.
For meetings with clients that may involve an element of negotiation, take a look at the further reading list below.
6: Delivering Great Presentations
Being able to deliver a presentation is a key communication skill for managers, or for anyone with leadership ambitions. And even if you consider yourself to be an experienced "performer" in front of an audience, you should still look at areas where you can develop your skills further.
The first step is to plan thoroughly. You'll find delivering a great presentation much easier if you've taken the time to craft what you're going to say. It's also vital to pick a structure and style that suits your audience. Think about what visual impact you can make, too.
Before you "take the stage," prepare the room and test any equipment or props that you intend to use. Nothing will break your concentration and distract from your message more than an unexpected technical glitch!
You need to keep your audience engaged, so you may find it helpful to use the techniques described in our article, The Ladder of Abstraction. This involves moving continually between tangible details and abstract concepts as you speak.
If your presentation is well-rehearsed, your confidence in public speaking will grow, and you can think more about your body language. Having a calm demeanor means that people can focus on your message without being distracted by any nervous movements or gestures.
Familiarize yourself with common presentation mistakes ahead of time, rather than learning about them through bitter experience. Also, remember that even the slickest presenter experiences presentation nerves, but learns to overcome them.
The best communicators listen actively, inspire people, help them to take effective action, and remove obstacles to their understanding. Unfortunately, effective communication isn't as common in business as it should be. Chances are, we've all been confused and frustrated by incomprehensible, jargon-filled messages.
However, by focusing on these six key skill areas, anyone can begin their journey to becoming an exceptional communicator. When you're ready to take it further, the Communication Skills section contains more than 130 useful communication tools – more than 200 for Club members – grouped into the following sections:
- Start Here.
- Planning and Structuring.
- Communicating in Person.
- Communicating in Writing.
- Negotiation, Persuasion and Influence.
- Difficult Communication Situations.
- Understanding Others Better.
Browse the sections that are relevant to you, and press the little "plus" icon next to the resources you're interested in to add them to your Personal Learning Plan.
This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!