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Developing strong communication skills is one of the most important things you can invest your time in. Poor communication can be the complete making of an individual, and the breaking of others.
There is one thing I really want to impress upon you: that simple, high-impact communication trumps any other. To understand what we’ve got to say, we shouldn’t require people to think too much about the message. For communication to be effective, it must be understood by everyone, and without misinterpretation.
My reason for saying this is based on years of experience in communications at all levels in organizations. Especially to Executive communities: busy people don’t have the time or inclination to wade through heaps of information – they need it in a sound-bite. This is why ‘Executive Dashboards’ are commonplace now, and why ‘Big Data’ aims to crunch almost countless pieces of information into one single conclusion. Here are some of the things I have learned over the years:
- The use of long, ‘clever’ words doesn’t do us credit. I often find that people use long-winded language to say something that a few simple words would do better. People often do this because they’re confused about what it means to be ‘articulate’; being articulate is about getting a message across clearly and efficiently, rather than exhausting a thesaurus and sounding intelligent.
- The key to communication is to understand who will be receiving your message, and making sure the words are appropriate. You wouldn’t use accounting language in a kindergarten, or vice-versa. The same message can be worded in many ways, and sometimes without words at all. (If you’ve seen the first five minutes of the animated movie Up! then you will know what I mean.)
- Say it simply, and say it boldly. Don’t water down a message when it doesn’t need to be. Of course, there are exceptions. Undertakers, coroners and oncologists require certain sensitivities when communicating with clients. This is because they understand the ‘state’ of their audience. This gives another important consideration – we must also empathize with our audience so that the message is clearly understood, but not to cause unintended consequences. Just the consequences we aim to achieve.
- And we have to remember: communication is a two-way process. When providing aural (spoken) communication, we’ve got to check that the person(s) we are talking to are getting the message. Look for visual cues: nodding heads; eye-contact; an open expression. When our listeners aren’t getting what we are saying they might screw their faces up, shake their heads or just disengage – they might begin looking at some papers or their smartphone. I like to add in the questions “Is this making sense?” or “With me so far?” just to check.
- Choose your medium wisely: the use of digital communication (email being the most common) continues to grow. This might be efficient for getting one message out to many people, but it can suck at getting a message out as clearly as possible (see point above.) Use aural communication for the really important messages. If you have to use email because you need to forward on messages you have received then I advise that you follow it up with a phone call to go over the key points and check that it has been understood properly. This rarely happens, so if you do it then you are setting yourself apart. On the flipside, if you have to provide a lot of information to an audience that is busy then use email. Not everybody will be interested in every point you are making in your message. In the email, offer a follow-up phone call so that your audience can make any inquiries.
- But most of all: get to the point. Many times in the past I’ve used words to say something without really saying it, to my detriment. We often do this when we lack confidence or are nervous/fearful about the consequences of the communication. Like a kid telling a parent about a clumsy accident. Avoiding clarity is pointless, as the message has got to come out – or we could then be misleading our audience. Communicating Bad News is good, if it means we can now do something about it. Telling me clearly why the Bad News happened is even better.
Strong communication is a skill that is developed. We won’t get it right when starting out, but we can and should learn how to develop this skill if we want to be high-performers.