The ability to communicate effectively is frequently ranked the number one key to success by business leaders. In one survey, executives earning more than $250,000 a year were asked to cite the primary factors in achieving success. First on their list? Communication skills.
Solid communication skills are important not just in business, but in about any line of work. Which is why we’d like to offer some advice to this year’s crop of college graduates about to enter the workforce.
Let’s start with the communication skill that can help you land a job in today’s tough economic environment – the interview. Like resumes, interviews today have changed. Your first interaction with a recruiter or hiring manger might be via Skype. Or you might be interviewed by a team rather than by one individual. And you might be asked to complete an actual assignment – or a portion of one – to demonstrate your abilities.
Whether your interview is traditional or non-traditional, the ability to communicate in a clear, concise, confident and compelling manner is paramount. Don’t assume you’ll ace that interview; instead, practice it – on camera, and with the help of someone who can provide constructive feedback. Most colleges and universities provide this service – sometimes even after you’ve graduated. Video is one of the best teaching tools ever invented. Take advantage of it.
Once you’re collecting that paycheck, it’s time to work on a number of other communication skills. They will serve you well during your career:
Know how to introduce yourself, a colleague or your company. Most people give very little thought, and even less rehearsal, to self or colleague introductions – which explains why so many of them are bad. But knowing how to introduce yourself to people inside and outside your company is important. And if you’re asked to introduce someone else, you become the “warm-up act.” Company executives notice and remember people who are skilled at knowing just what to say about themselves or the individuals they’re introducing. In both cases, the key is to focus on accomplishments, not just responsibilities.
Equally important is the ability to introduce your organization to those outside of it. Go beyond the basics – what it does, how many people it employs, etc. Instead, talk also about what makes it unique; share some examples. For different audiences, have different versions and lengths of this intro.
Know how to craft and deliver an effective presentation. Virtually everyone in the working world has to present at one time or another. Sadly, most people have poor presentation skills. Chances are, you’ve sat through a boring, poorly crafted, PowerPoint-heavy and poorly delivered presentation. Make sure you can do the following:
▪ Craft a presentation with a powerful opening and a strong closing, and one that contains memorable stories, analogies, examples, anecdotes, illustrations or compelling data.
▪ Present comfortably to large and small groups, and in a variety of venues – from behind a lectern (formal) and without one (informal).
▪ Speak fluidly using bullet points or other notes.
▪ Use PowerPoint sparingly and effectively. That means using visuals only when needed, and avoiding visuals that are crammed with too much information – especially words.
▪ Field questions succinctly and with ease.
Be able to deliver impromptu remarks. Sometimes your boss is going to put you on the spot and ask you to speak or present – instantly …. without notice. So the ability to think quickly on your feet and communicate effectively is an important skill. And it’s one you can actually work on. For example, if you remember that all presentations have three parts – the opening, the body, and the conclusion – you can use that template or formula to assemble some points you want to make.
Develop storytelling ability. One of the most recent and interesting trends in the business world is the recognition of the importance of storytelling. Some companies even have their employees attend storytelling workshops. The reason is simple: stories are among the most powerful ways to convey messages. Human beings – regardless of culture – are storytelling creatures. Start to tell a story, and people stop and listen. Stories are automatic attention getters.
If you want to learn how to tell a good story, visit the StoryCorps website (www.storycorps.org). StoryCorps provides Americans the opportunity to record and share their stories. Since 2003, it has collated and archived more than 40,000 interviews from nearly 80,000 people. StoryCorps interviews are also featured every Friday on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.
Be a good listener. The best communication is two-way. That’s true not just in personal relationships, but in business relationships as well. But listening is hard work. It requires effort. When we listen actively (i.e., really concentrate on what’s being said), our heart rate goes up and we breathe faster.
Experts say we’re not very good at listening, and that untrained listeners listen at a 25-50 percent efficiency rate. To improve your listening skills, do several things:
▪ Listen with a “clean slate.” Don’t assume you know anything.
▪ Give your undivided attention. Stay focused, concentrate and fight distractions.
▪ Don’t interrupt.
▪ Don’t think about how you’re going to respond. (Listening actively will actually help you do that automatically.)
▪ Show that you are listening by taking notes, asking for clarification, paraphrasing what’s been said, etc.
Later in your career, there are several other communication skills that, depending on your role in your organization, you may have to use. Those include interacting with the news media (through satellite and other interviews, press briefings and news conferences), communicating in a crisis, and delivering a prepared speech (perhaps even using a TelePrompter). We’ll skip those skills in this article, but wanted to provide you with a “heads up” for future reference.
Far too many people in business, government or the professions have sub-par communication skills. But those fortunate few who can communicate effectively – face-to-face, one-on-one, to large groups and small – will get others to listen to, understand, and act on what was said. They will also have lots of job security.