Why Communication Skills Should Matter to You
It's the number one problem, say supervisors
When asked to name their number one problem with employees, employers of all kinds answer loud and clear: “Poor communication skills!” Whether talking about entry level applicants, recent high school or college grads, office workers or blue-collar workers, the complaints follow a pattern.
“Sometimes the job skills are excellent but the communication skills are another story.”
“High school grads, college grads — we have to teach them how to write.”
“They’re great at using technology, but the content is lacking. They don’t know what to say or how to say it.”
“They don’t know how to talk to people.”
What are these all-important “communication skills,” and how can we improve our own?
Communication Skills Rule the Working World
Starting with the person who’s out of work, or is looking for something better: Job seekers need writing skills to showcase their experience and strengths in cover letters, resumes and in e-mail responses to online ads or company websites. Any applicant who can bring his or her assets to life in words has an edge over the competition.
Your verbal communication skills are like your appearance. In the job interview — and networking — it’s the first thing people notice about you. Even the message on your answering machine should be mature and professional.
On -the-job, solid writing skills can produce a professional business letter, report or email. A simple memo has to be organized and clear. Good speaking skills are essential in interacting with supervisors and coworkers, in training a coworker and, of course, on the phone or online with customers and the public.
Do you have management ambitions? You’ll need top-notch communication skills to write a business plan, speak to a group, create an effective PowerPoint presentation, negotiate a contract or explain company policy to employees. Every business has public relations needs; it takes high-quality communication skills to project the right image for your company.
In any sales capacity — but especially in retail — communication skills are the key to selling goods and services and turning customers into happy campers.
In American business, the team player is the ideal, but sometimes a man or woman must “speak to power.” To stand strong without burning your bridges calls for superb communication skills.
No wonder employers want “excellent communication skills.” As one human resources executive puts it, “Poor communication skills can be a real career killer.” How can you improve yours?
It’s All Relative
Our basic training in communications began in that small world where we grew up — the world of family, friends and early schooling. That’s where we learned our “default” vocabulary and grammar, speech patterns, facial expressions and body language. When we leave the old neighborhood and enter the wider world, we find ourselves in a very different environment that asks us to grow as communicators.
Just as a standup comic uses different jokes and language in front of a Vegas crowd, at a women’s club or on Letterman or Leno, being a competent communicator means being sensitive to the differences between audiences and adjusting content and language accordingly. To some extent, it happens naturally, but it also takes conscious effort.
Morphing Yourself for Success
As communicators, most people are the classic diamond in the rough — in need of polishing. Start by envisioning where you are and where you’re going. You don’t need a crystal ball, just ask yourself a few questions.
• In what field do you think you’ll spend most of your work life? Will it be healthcare, computers, teaching, show business, retail, law?
• How high do you hope to climb? Will you be content in a support or staff role, or do you want to become a manager, maybe even a corporate leader?
• What kind of people will you be working with? Businesspeople, blue-collar workers, doctors or lawyers, police or firemen, social workers?
Your ambitions and interests may change over time, but being clear about your goals will give you a sense of what communication tools and style you need to nurture.
• How much formal education will you need in your field? Plan on getting all you can. Those who keep learning keep growing as human beings and gain value as employees.
• In your present or next job, what are the communication responsibilities? Mostly writing, talking to people face to face, working the phones, communicating online?
• Make yourself an insider. Learn the special language of your field. You don’t want to appear clueless when your boss or coworkers use industry jargon.
• Monitor your pronunciation, grammar and habitual expressions. Talk any way you want at home, but try to use standard language skills at work.
• If you’re asked to produce a document you’ve never done before, get your hands on a sample. Study and copy it. A big part of building communication skills is imitation and practice.
The benefits of live classes in business communications are structured learning and instructor feedback. But you can learn a lot online as well.
• On the Internet, you can learn free of charge, in a few hours, what used to require time-consuming research. Google “business (or 'workplace') communications.” You’ll find a lots websites with articles, tips and links.
• Read, read, read. Read the best newspapers and magazines. Read books by modern authors and the masters. Expose your mind to quality language and thinking styles — they will stretch your abilities.
A big part of communicating well is being considerate of the listener or reader. If you speak rapidly or have an accent, consider working on your speech patterns. Be polite to everyone and generous with your smile; treat everyone with respect. These, too, are potent communication tools.
Don’t overlook the power of the nonverbal. In every job interview, your body language, facial expressions and manners communicate to the interviewer whether you’ll fit into the culture of that particular workplace, whether you’ll get along with coworkers and supervisors, and whether you can be trusted with customers.
If your writing, speech or nonverbals are not up to par, probably no one will say a word to your face — but you risk being passed over for opportunities and promotions.
The Silent Skill
There’s one more communication skill that goes beyond both words and the nonverbal. The communication avenue runs both ways; it’s a sending and a receiving. It’s easy to get so caught up in what you have to say, that you forget to listen.
Listening begins when you quietly set aside your own wants and opinions and start paying attention to what the other person is saying.
Listen and you’ll find yourself hearing and understanding, maybe for the first time, the other guy’s point of view. That’s why listening helps in coping with the unhappy customer, complaining boss or upset coworker.
Listening wakes up our intelligence, making it easier to solve problems, understand instructions and pick up on unspoken messages.
Listening tells the other person that you respect what matters to them. It makes compromise and agreement possible. Listening teaches patience and empathy. It’s a powerful communication tool well worth cultivating.
Whether or not an employer specifically asks for “excellent communication skills,” they all want them in their employees. Anyone who is well endowed with those skills is a giant step closer to their career and employment goals.
Burt Wetanson is a freelance writer who has contributed over 60 articles to Working World. His goal: “To give readers practical tools for success in the tough LA career market.”