Improve Your Communication Skills

One of the most difficult challenges in leading people and Organizations is being an effective communicator. It is often intimidating for people. Yet, it is such a critical skill to master if you want to achieve your full potential.

At Procter & Gamble, written and verbal communication skills were heavily coached and great communicators were highly valued throughout the Company. I thought it might be helpful to reach back into my career and share with you some common mistakes people make in communication. Mistakes that P&G worked very hard to train out of their future leaders. If you avoid these mistakes, you should find your communication skills improving.

Some Typical Mistakes

  • Giving too much detail. This is one I still struggle with. There is really no need to demonstrate how smart you are. It is not important to give 10 reasons why something is right to do. The more reasons you give, the more likely your conversation or presentation will get sidetracked. Private and Public Sector decision makers only care about the 2 – 3 most important reasons they should align with your point-of-view. In fact, the more reasons you provide the less confident they will believe you to be.
  • Not answering the question that was asked. Sometimes we are so anxious to convince somebody that they should agree with what we are saying that we don’t take the time to listen. There is an old saying worth paraphrasing – God gave you two ears and one mouth, use them in proportion. If you don’t understand the question, clarify before attempting to answer it. If you need time to collect your thoughts, repeat the question. Don’t allow a question to get you too far off on a tangent. Answer the question and then get back on track. Try not to be defensive, and definitely don’t start defending your point until you truly understand the question being asked.
  • Putting too much information on a handout or chart. Don’t allow the people you are talking with to turn their attention from you to reading a detailed handout. You make it easy for people to get sidetracked when you put too much information in front of them that is not truly relevant to your presentation. Highlight only the most important points you need to make.
  • Not being responsive to the person/people you are speaking to. It is important to know your audience’s preferences for receiving information. Anticipate the data they need and be certain to present it in a format they are used to. It is more about effective communication than demonstrating your creativity. Watch their body language when you are talking. If they are nodding to what you are saying, move on. Be flexible and find a good balance between demonstrating your personal conviction and a willingness to be open-minded. It is important people feel that you are genuinely interested in finding the right solution rather than being right.
  • Winging it or not taking care of the basics. You must be prepared and thoroughly understand your subject. I am often amazed at how often people do not do basic research on the internet to determine what is known about the subject matter. Another common mistake is to not declare what the meeting purpose is right upfront. It is important people know what you are looking to get from them. Also, share the agenda for the meeting with people so they know what to expect and can comfortable waiting to ask questions knowing information is coming up that may be relevant. And always summarize next steps to be certain agreements you thought were reached in fact were.
  • Don’t bluff. It is perfectly fine to admit you don’t know an answer to a question. If it is an important question you can get back to the person with an answer. You are not expected to know everything. In my opinion, bluffing implies you do not respect the other person enough to be transparent. And, if you are caught bluffing it is the kiss of death from a trust perspective.

I am certain the above is not a comprehensive list. But, I think it is a good list. And, if you are making any of the above mistakes adjusting your behavior will definitely improve your communication skill.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Improving your communication skills is one of those never ending challenges. I always replay every presentation in my mind right after I give it. I always find things I could have and wished I had done better. What tips do you have for people working on improving their communication skills? What have you learned that you can pass on?

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7 Comments so far

  1. Kristin Robbins

    March 7, 2012

    We should listen and gather information before speaking. It is important to know the issue/s, so we may have an informed and intelligent discussion, which leads to a quick resolution.

  2. Judy Beck

    March 8, 2012

    They are all excellent points. I especially don’t like it when someone does not answer the question asked. A current example is most politicians. However, I have another point that I think affects how a businessperson is perceived. On LinkedIn, I have found that a series of communications is key to getting to know someone. I like to hear that person’s views in several discussion threads. That said, I have found that when a person consistently misspells words, has a lot of typos, uses a similar but wrong word, or the comment is not grammatically correct, that I give a lower rating for that person’s professionalism. Depending on that person’s stated expertise, such a rating can make or break my decision to use or refer that person. I think anyone who uses social media for business should not make these mistakes. Of course, I don’t expect perfection, just an honest effort.

  3. Babette Ten Haken

    March 8, 2012

    I try to find a common denominator, either ideas or terms, that make sense to everyone sitting around the table. Then I tailor my comments around those common denominator terms and expressions. I find that folks feel less marginalized and are more participatory and collaborative as well.

  4. Andy HILL

    March 8, 2012

    Don’t confuse listening with hearing, in relation to what’s being said.

  5. Linda H. DiMario

    March 8, 2012

    I wanted to wait and see how my smart colleagues would weigh in on the Communication Skills topic, particularly given the state of communication in the U.S. and around the world today. While social media has already proven its ability to connect, inform, expose and even provoke epic change, this same unfettered access has not always inspired responsibility. And really listening, as Hossam and Andrew remind us – hearing what is being said and understanding what is intended – is a responsibility. As Kristin points out “Active” listening requires 100% engagement. It is hard work. You must be attentive, unfiltered and committed. Whereas “Marginal” listening asks much less of us – we bring our preconcieved notions, experiences and agendas to the table – and then we wonder why the meeting didn’t go well! Summarizing what you have heard and asking for affirmation of what you have just expressed is a smart way to test your listening skills and it better prepares you to present a solution or make an offer that is more likely to gain traction or at the very least, reveal lingering differences or obstacles to resolution which you can then address. Like we are all saying, it is hard work but the results are so gratifying!

  6. Kent Buckingham

    March 8, 2012

    Tip: think first about the needs of your audience and what they need to learn before developing your plan for what to say to them.

  7. Steve Bathe

    March 9, 2012

    I developed a method of breaking down communication into short statements (I call them “Steve-Isms”), metaphors and short stories (some true, some purely symbolic in nature). This makes it easier for people to remember fairly complex ideas and aids in understanding. I use these statements like mathematical equations where a simple formula can be applied to many different applications. Example: “End results need only satisfy the few, means have to satisfy the many”. This short statement summarizes a long conversation I has with an employee who was struggling with how to blend ethics and expediency. I have more if you are interested.

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