November 07, 2022
Improve Your Communications Skills
"Communication to a relationship is like oxygen is to life. Without it, it dies." – Tony A. Gaskins, Jr.
I delve into this week's topic because I've experienced how much of a challenge it is to improve communication skills. From the time I was asked to stand and speak louder at a Lion's meeting when I told of my trip to Mexico to forgetting to read slower during writer critique group meetings, it's been a constant effort to communicate better. Public speaking isn't too much of an issue these days if I come prepared, but there are always things to work on.
There are many aspects of this skill because of its various forms. Written, oral, non-verbal, and electronic or other coded messages. ("Bob, stop with the smoke signals. You're in the office.") As with every skill, there are proper protocols, procedures, and practices. As the opening quote indicates, this skill is a foundation for all others. Yes, you can incorporate and associate various skills into this one, but this particular one is key. Let's wade in and discuss several tips to improve your communication skills.
As much as possible, be prepared. Moderating meetings, giving a presentation, delivering an opening/closing address, engaging in a debate, or taking the stage for open mic night at a comedy club. Whatever the occasion, follow the Boy Scout motto of being prepared. There's nothing wrong with index cards for reminders. (Except for the comedy routine. Please, memorize and practice beforehand.)
How many times have you heard "Think before you speak"? This is not just about the words used (as discussed later) but in the delivery. Listen to a random conversation and how many people have too many thoughts at once and can't get the words out. How many times do they restart sentences?
I recall early programs of a well-known radio broadcaster. He had the same problem. As the years passed, I noticed how the opening of his discussions became smoother and better spoken.
Whenever I'm writing stories or blogs, I develop at least a rough outline before putting down the first word. This should be done for any written correspondence—email, letter, text, etc. This is not to suggest a detailed page for what you want included in a text message. What I'm referring to is, again, preparation and thinking about what you want to convey. I don't know how many texts and emails I've received where words and messages are misspelled and garbled. I don't want to figure out what you meant. You should take the time to write it clearly, then follow the next point.
Auto-correct can be a pesky feature. In my experience, word processing and texting dictionaries have not learned that 'taekwondo' is a legitimate word and that I didn't really want 'teakwood.' Check out the online anecdotes about how incorrect words (typos, auto-correct) in texts cause a lot of confusion. ("Bob, I think you meant to say you installed a new door, not a boor.")
You need only a few seconds, perhaps a minute to glance over the email or text before clicking send. That small amount of time can ensure some professionalism and save you some embarrassment.
"Bob, we're discussing next year's budget, not the lunch menu."
This issue happens a lot during meetings, seminars, and conferences with panelists. People stray off-topic. This isn't good because time has been taken away from the heart of the matter. It also shows a lack of focus if the speaker doesn't realize the problem and gets back on track.
"Bob, you've talked for almost thirty minutes. Get to the point."
Dialogue in a book that runs for several pages and only from one character becomes tedious. I end up skimming because I've lost interest.
Lengthy speeches are fine if they're entertaining or hold people's attention.
For the most part, keep the presentation, speech, or narrative concise and short. Get the message out and move on.
Avoid repetition. Avoid the phrase 'in other words.' If you can't communicate what you mean the first time, you're wasting time trying to explain it.
It's the other side of the communication coin. You speak, then you listen. Have the courtesy to listen to those who listened to you.
Don't automatically respond or react. Keep emotions in check. Again, think about those words you're going to use. Gather all the information and consider the options. Sometimes, the best choice is to stay silent. Remember the adage of staying silent and letting people think you're a fool rather than opening your mouth and proving it. Another is, "The first to anger, loses."
One of the interesting foibles some humans have is always wanting to fill a silence, even if it's unnecessary or imprudent to do so. Good communicators know how to use silence to their advantage.
A great suggestion is to record and listen to your speech or presentation. How many times do you hesitate or stammer?
Toastmasters is a wonderful group for improving speaking skills. During a speech, someone will act as a timer; another will count the number of times er, uh, and um are said; and another will critique the quality of the tone and voice.
Practice a presentation if only to stay within a time limit. Going over could mean you're cutting into someone else's time. Again, this is part of preparation.
Learn the protocols of presenting and being an audience member. Unfortunately, even great communicators will come off as less than professional if the technology glitches. Be aware of cameras, microphones, what's in the background, lighting, and how you appear in the window. ("Bob, why am I looking at only your left ear?")
As part of your practices and eventual delivery, be aware of modulation, volume, rate of speed, tone, pitch, and other qualities of voice and speaking. Let's highlight a few.
Tone – Is it friendly, boring, or condescending?
Pitch – I know we're born a soprano, a bass, or somewhere in between but as much as possible, adjust it to the audience. Too high becomes irritating and misunderstood. Too low becomes muffled and misunderstood.
Accent – As with pitch, you're stuck with the accent or dialect you grew up with. As above, be aware of your audience. Too often I've had to ask a customer support representative to repeat what was just said because I understood only a few words.
One of the ways to assist a thick accent is to speak slower and enunciate. All of us are guilty of being comfortable and familiar with our own regional way of speaking. While those in your area understand the rapid-fire words, others may not.
Communication is more than words. Be aware of what message your stance and posture convey. The position of hands and feet says a lot, too. Either subconsciously or overtly, people will pick up what your body language says about feelings and attitudes. ("Bob, I know you can hear me. Take your fingers out of your ears.")
You're a professional, not a stereotypical used car salesman hawking a junker like it's a new Bentley. Speak with confidence, with an upbeat and hearty voice, and with a positive attitude. Most people recognize doublespeak, falsity, and if you really believe your message.
Part of quality communication is asking questions. Refrain from asking the person to repeat everything just said (refer to the listening point) but do ask for clarification if needed. Keep questions concise (review that point) and relevant (yep, that point, too).
Have you ever watched a soap opera?
"Bob, I have something to tell you."
"You have something to tell me?"
"Yes. It's important."
"What's so important?"
"I can't stress how important this is."
Camera close-up of the serious face, then scene change.
For heaven's sake, get on with it! Don't hedge, hint, or imply, just say it. Yes, you can lead up to a point but when the time comes, say it. A lot of confusion, mistrust, and assumptions could be avoided if one just communicates clearly.
Simple enough to understand. Good communication includes respect for others and the usage of please and thank you.
Obviously, this is not a complete list of how to improve communication skills. There are others and variations of those listed above. The best suggestion is to work on one or two until you're comfortable, then add a couple more.
The overriding fact is you're always striving for better communication. Even professional speakers train and practice, looking for that extra one percent improvement. Perseverance goes a long way to success in any life skill. With a little effort, you'll communicate better, gaining notice and admiration.
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