By Gary Hinkle
People in my workshops often end up confessing that they know they’re “terrible communicators.” They say they know it’s important to listen openly, write clearly, and present well but that they don’t do it well and never have.
“I’ve always been this way,” I heard recently. “My wife tells me all the time that I’m a terrible communicator. Then I come to work, and I hear the same thing—though not quite as directly. My wife gives it to me straight. My staff is a little less direct, but I know what they mean.”
The fall-out from this problem is easy to spot—team members who aren’t sure what to do (“Did he say…?”), staff members who disengage, executives who get impatient and move on before you can get the words out.
The people in my workshop, who confess they “can’t communicate,” follow with a disclosure of even greater despair: “I know I need to be a better communicator, but I don’t know what to do about it.”
Let me help. I, too, am an engineer and I, too, work hard to communicate effectively. I write like an engineer (I confess!), and I rely heavily on editors.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be an effective presenter, but it wasn’t easy and I get why it’s a challenge. So let me help you organize what you need to do to move from “terrible communicator” to terrific.
There are four fundamental communication skills. Start out by identifying which are your strengths and which aren’t:
When we ask people in our workshops which of these four is the most difficult, most say “listening” followed by “speaking” and then “writing.” If that sounds about like how you’d size it up, then here are a few steps I recommend.
1) Get a copy of the book Listening, the Forgotten Skill by Madelyn Burley-Allen and read it. Her examination of the three levels of listening is illuminating, and a nice way for those of us who like organized systems to think about listening.
2) Decide to be a better listener. It’s a choice, and you can choose to shut others down or let in what they have to say. Put yourself aside and listen fully to someone else. For starters, think about someone who listens to you—openly and completely. Wouldn’t you like to be like that for someone else?
3) Do not take a “Business Writing” class. No one can teach you to write in a couple of days. Classes that promise to do that won’t live up to the promise. Instead, read good writers and see how they do it. One place to look for good writing is in good business books.
4) Do take a presentation skills class. Of course, we recommend our own, taught by Auxilium instructor Susan de la Vergne. But you don’t have to take ours. Just take one. Make sure it teaches you how to organize information, size up your audience, and how to overcome self-absorbed anxiety—“I’m nervous, I’m not good enough.”
5) Recognize that leadership communication goes beyond the speak/write same-old-same-old. Leaders get to deliver unwelcome news, rally unwilling teams, enliven tired meetings, and encourage reticent participants (by listening, oh BTW). Yes, we have a class for this, too. Write, Speak, Listen and Lead. Of course we’re not the only ones offering leadership communication. There are others, and their classes offer a different perspective.
Listen, write better, learn more about leading meetings and making presentations, and step up to the challenges of leadership communication.