Communication is the key to success in business (and life). There are experts and then there are the rest of us. Similar to any other skill, effective communication does not come naturally to most of us. Instead it takes experience and practice to develop the ability to communicate well. As with all practice, we are guaranteed to make mistakes small and large for that is how we learn.
It’s all part of the journey. Water cooler talk, social media, and neighborhood picnics are full of storytelling about what funny or stupid things are said at events, meetings and in daily life. Most jokes, cartoons and memes reflect on the odd and funny communication and miscommunications of people and society. Late night shows and comedians make their living off examples of others’ poor communication. Sunday morning news programs parse every word of elected officials and diplomats. The art of language makes up much of the work of diplomacy.
Much like art, great communication is easy to identify when observed. The great political, business, religious and civic speeches of our time move us to reflect on ourselves or the world in a different way, to show us what wasn’t obvious before or to move us to action. It’s the reason we go to events and listen to great speakers, and read books, magazines, and columns (and yes even Facebook posts).
Now how do we improve our communication to better our own lives and the lives of those that we care about? Of course we could just go to school (or go back to school). One my favorite college courses for example, was in nonverbal communication. I often joke that I know I’m an expert because I received a “C” in that course (think where I would be if I received a “B” or “A”!). All joking aside, studying great communicators either formally or informally is a great way to improve your abilities. We can also get much better by surrounding ourselves with great communicators – the skill rubs off even if you’re not trying. We should also self-study by reading with a keener eye and reflecting on the author’s words after the fact.
Technology can be your friend. We’ve never had so many opportunities to learn to become great communicators. With YouTube and Google many of the world’s great communicators are just a click away.
As with everything else in life, practice makes perfect. The more you practice your occupation, hobby, sport, art, or talent, the better you become. Entire books have been written on this subject including one of my favorites, Outliers, in which Malcom Gladwell argues that the key to success is practicing something for 10,000 hours. To give you an idea what that means, 10,000 hours is equal to five years of a fulltime job.
Aristotle said, “These virtues we acquire first by exercising them, as in the case of other arts. Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it: men come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players by playing the harp.” Similarly, to be a better communicator, you must communicate!
The written word. Simply by putting pen to paper thoughts become more valuable than the neurons floating around your head. It’s easy to put off doing tasks you don’t enjoy, and for me, that’s writing. One reason is that back in the good ol’ days you printed and mailed your thoughts and could never take them back to improve on them. For me, if my thoughts weren’t perfect, they weren’t worth printing. Again, technology can be your friend. Now you have the ability to go back and improve your thoughts at your leisure. For better or worse, the written word has never been so malleable.
Verbal communication or speeches. Most people really struggle with verbal communication in front of a large crowd. It makes sense. The fear of making a mistake in style or content is daunting. But people are so forgiving! All good public speakers realize that almost everyone is scared (and the ones that aren’t probably shouldn’t be speaking). Again, with practice, you can learn to embrace that unease and deliver a good speech despite your fear.
Again, practice communication by communicating! Most real work gets done in hallways, in small group or private conversation, not in the large lecture halls. Here’s a tip: use each small group conversation you engage in as a “micro speech” – practice for the real thing. You’ll notice that the most natural public speakers are also good conversationalists. In large settings they seem to engage in a conversation with the audience. They “listen” to the reactions of the audience and change their message and delivery accordingly just as you do when you’re trying to convince a friend or sell your product. This skill requires good listening. Most great orators spend most of their time listening, analyzing, organizing and translating what they observe from others. To become a good speaker, be a great listener and then look to use that information to help your audience. Inform, motivate, inspire. The foundation of most great work is thinking and planning and only then followed by action.
Collaborative Communication: If articulating your thoughts and ideas in writing or verbally is difficult for most of us then it should come as no surprise that group dynamics change everything. Each player in our business or avocation brings to the conversation their unique background, education, experience and perspective. Human history is rife with communication breakdowns. Group dynamics are why every great team practices communication every day at work, on the field or on stage. When viewed as practice it changes the perspective and relieves pressure. Every instance of communication is not being tested and evaluated – it is a learning process for everyone to know how to be more effective. My favorite examples of collaborative communication come from sports – where players know each of their teammates’ abilities so well that they know where the teammate is going to be without any verbal or nonverbal communication. You know you’re really communicating well when you don’t need to communicate. Infantrymen provide another worthy example. To move quietly and undetected through a forest when searching for an enemy (fortunately all my experience was in training only) is truly an amazing talent. Obviously shouting is out of the question (until the firefight), so hand and arm signals and body movement communicate an enormous amount of information so that others in the platoon can take the appropriate action.
Teams of all stripes practice communication together every day – we should do more of it in business. So practice today. Comment on this blog (below), engage us in communication via social media, or communicate with us soon in person.
Let’s travel on the communications journey of excellence together!