Your communication skills, or lack thereof, will make or break your career.
Evidently, there are other important factors to consider when ascertaining how far you'd go in your professional journey——qualifications, competence, executive presence/gravitas, being at the right place at the right time, (aka plain old luck), etc.——but one of the most important determinants of career progression is your communication skills.
If you cannot communicate effectively, you're done...unless you seek help and are almost obsessive about making the necessary changes.
Remember that communication encompasses the oral, the verbal and body language cues.
There is always a need for effective communication at the workplace. In the UK for example, a new rule announced in August requires public sector employees who deal directly with the public, (teachers, policemen, council workers etc.), to have a minimum ‘C’ grade in English language skills at GCSE level. To ensure compliance, managers will be obligated to test their employees on how effectively the latter communicates with the public.
Although most of us with white collar jobs in Anglophone countries may speak English fluently, there is a difference between speaking/writing English passably and truly communicating.
In fact, there is a crisis of sorts of effective communication at the workplace, at all levels: From recent graduates and young executives, to seasoned professionals and masters of industry.
Companies too are struggling to genuinely communicate with their staff. Savvy businesses are now challenging their corporate communications professionals to consider creative ways to trigger employee engagement. Moreover, boosting and protecting corporate reputations, internally and externally, are persistent concerns. Due to avoidable faux pas, often exacerbated by social media, communication and PR crises are rife. Case in point: The top five communication blunders in 2014 should be regarded as a cautionary tale of what not to do when handling corporate messaging.
Now as the proactive professional in this corporate jungle, what can you do to (re)position yourself as the high flyer in your pack?
1) Read frequently and extensively
This is the number one piece of advice I give during my coaching sessions.
There are no ways around it. You must cultivate a habit of reading good materials to become a good writer.
For those who loathe paperbacks or intimidating textbooks, there is a plethora of content available on the Web in different formats.
Professionals have realised that writing for cyberspace requires a different strategy——articles which are often concise and easier to understand, are combined with visuals, audios and other forms to entice readers.
Therefore read widely and even outside your field, but read regularly. Well-written content, (worthy of publication in the New York Times newspaper, Harvard Business Review magazines, etc.), exposes you to new vocabulary, nuances in language, writing styles and interesting structures which you subconsciously adopt to enrich your writing as time elapses.
Join online communities like Quora and LinkedIn and follow 'writing' groups. Subscribe to daily/weekly emails from blogs, renowned writers and thought leaders but read something daily, or a few times a week. It could be an article of 500 words or long-form content of 2,000 words.
2) Write, write, write!
Like any other muscle to be built, you need to 'exercise' your writing muscle to become a better writer. The more you write, the quicker you improve.
This is something I can personally attest to as a blogger, business content creator and communications coach.
It's easy to make excuses. You could say that you don't have the time to write because you juggle multiple assignments.
Or that writing is not really necessary in your role as a software engineer, an accountant or an art director; that you do things instead.
Or that you could simply pay someone to write for you.
Note however that you will be required to write; you just haven't realised how often you do so.
Emails requesting information/approvals; complaints about technical glitches; proposals, reports and recommendations; memos delivering bad news, sometimes badly-written, such as Microsoft's infamous memo laying off thousands in 2014; letters of resignation in the wake of scandals; public statements of apology; etc. In your career, you may need to write them at some point. It will become challenging for you the more demanding the position you hold or the more critical the audience becomes.
But there's help. Apart from taking refresher courses in grammar, mastering business writing and crafting powerful emails will get you far...very far indeed.
Thus, get over your fear———and shame———of writing sometimes cringe-worthy letters/emails/memos/reports, etc. and just write.
Also be conscientious about brutally editing and proofreading your work. You’ll soon observe that your writing chops are becoming top notch.
3) Strengthen your speaking skills
If you occasionally manage to wiggle your way out of writing at work, you won't succeed in dodging presentations, meetings and talks.
Yes, you’ll be required to speak regularly and no, you won't be allowed to 'pass' in such situations.
It might seem daunting, having to give presentations to your bosses or to unfamiliar crowds, or to be suddenly called upon to speak, but do so anyway. In fact, embrace occasions to speak.
I get it: You're an introvert and feel that everyone will judge you (unfairly) when you speak. Or you may have some legitimate social anxiety about public speaking. Get professional help for crippling phobias but then go ahead, in spite of yourself, and do it.
Note that even seasoned speakers, who get paid for their talent, admit that they sometimes get nervous. In fact, many have 'rituals' they go through before every speaking engagement———short prep talks in front of the mirror, power poses, eerie sounds made to 'wake up' their voices etc.———they nonetheless prepare, channel their nervous energy for greater impact and go on to wow their audiences.
It takes quite a bit of practice and some courage but it can be done.
Speaking slowly but purposefully, changing tone/pitch, pausing at key moments, gesticulating, repeating phrases, rhyming...there are numerous tips for giving winning speeches. TED talks are renowned for being inspiring and engaging, so watch a couple of the videos available online and learn from the experts.
Step out of your comfort zone to strengthen your speaking skills and watch your confidence grow.
Trust me on this: You will get noticed.
4) Discern body language cues
"You say it best, when you say nothing at all”.
- Ronan Keating, British pop star.
Most of communication is what is not being said.
Even silence speaks volumes. Knowing how to discern body language cues will help you know the approaches to take, especially in stressful situations.
You'll also need to be aware of vibes you give off. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to point out telltale signs. Interrupting someone, frowning, looking away when being spoken to, rolling your eyes, grimacing, etc.——such ticks communicate annoyance, indifference or a complete disregard for the other person...which might not be your intentions.
Listening is also a skill that should be honed. When you combine active listening with observing facial expressions, it becomes a highly effective tool of discernment.
Those sensitive enough to interpret body language vibes usually save themselves grief further down the line.
Take this point seriously.
The good news is that you already have noticeable communication skills otherwise you wouldn't have landed your current job.
However, if you’re aiming for the accelerated path to professional advancement——your excellent qualifications, experience and track record notwithstanding——you’ll need to display superior communication skills.
This is how you do so:
Read constantly; consciously improve your writing and speaking skills; and work on being perceptive of body language vibes. Your perseverance will pay off when you get signalled out for leadership positions.
And you’ll deserve every opportunity that comes your way.
What other communication tips have helped your career? Please post your comments below.
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Need further help?
Hire me for a writing assignment or communications training and let me help you get results. There are two ways to do this:
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N.B - First image courtesy of Sira Anamwong; via freedigitalphotos.net. Second image courtesy of Stuart Miles; via freedigitalphotos.net. Third and fourth images courtesy of Iosphere; via freedigitalphotos.net. Fifth image courtesy of Kibsri; via freedigitalphotos.net. Last image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan; via freedigitalphotos.net.