In a world where connectivity is increasing, the challenge for professionals is to identify a range of tools to communicate effectively and consistently. Communication embraces many situations including informal discussions, social media, meetings, emails, interviews, presentations, negotiations, marketing and public speaking. We communicate by verbal, non-verbal, written or visual means. This skill can be improved through learning, focus and practice.
Technological development, leading to increased frequency of communication through texting and chatting on websites, arguably results in underdeveloped interpersonal skills. These may include the ability to express ideas and thoughts to others face-to-face, and the ability to grasp non-verbal communication.
Shakespeare tells us in As You Like It that,
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.’
We might not all aspire to performing Shakespeare, but we play many roles in different situations and optimising our communication skills will positively influence how, what and when we communicate in those roles. Here are some useful tools to develop your communication skillset in a changing environment.
1. CONTROL BREATH, POSTURE AND VOICE
Breath underpins the voice. It is vital that breath be secure, i.e. the right amounts of air taken in and let out in an easily controlled manner, even under pressure or stress. A balanced, relaxed posture supports secure breathing. Many of our habits that distort posture are unconscious. There are a range of exercises to identify and eliminate stresses in different parts of our body to improve posture.
A useful ‘quick’ relaxation exercise that can be practiced just before a key communication event:
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, weight evenly spread.
- Then start by flexing the toe muscles and relaxing them, next move to other muscle groups including calves, knees, thighs, hips, torso, hands, arms, neck and face, tightening each, then relaxing.
- To align the body, bend forward and take the hands towards the toes, knees slightly bent, breathe out, then uncurl slowly stacking each vertebra of the spine, one at a time. The head should come up last. The spine will be tall and straight.
This aligned and relaxed posture supports our breath and is the basis of positive body language.
Breathing exercises help the rate of inhalation and exhalation and develop capacity:
- Start by taking a breath in through the nose to a silent count of three and let the air out to a count of five, repeat and vary the number of counts in and out, always with a lower count for the in-breath.
- For capacity, breathe in to a count of three and see how far you can count out loud on the breath out, the higher the better but never forcing the breath.
- The more toned our muscles are, the more automatically they function even when we are feeling under pressure.
- Regularly reading aloud even for a short time can also help to develop the muscles.
The quality of the voice can be improved by regularly tuning it using resonating exercises such as humming.
Clearer articulation is encouraged by practising tongue twisters. Improved modulation, enabling the voice to reflect the mood and thoughts of our narrative, is achieved by using pause and by varying pitch (how high or low), pace (speed), power (volume), inflection and tone. This modulation of the voice will stimulate and engage the audience, particularly in the after-lunch meeting or presentation!
2. MANAGE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL READINESS
The importance of being in the right state of mind for communication should not be underestimated.
If we have received a communication which we consider unfavourable and immediately send an emotional response, it is unlikely to be the route to a good outcome. Waiting until our initial reaction has settled and considering options more dispassionately will lead to a better result.
Physical readiness and aliveness follows from relaxed, aligned posture and helps our mental preparedness and tone of delivery. Awareness of our physical state is important as body language contributes to the communication process. Negative body language that can distract the audience includes fidgeting, folded arms or continual pacing when delivering a presentation. A slightly forward-leaning position, open facial expression and firm hand shake are examples of positive body language.
3. CHOOSE AN APPROPRIATE CHANNEL OF COMMUNICATION
Technology permits us to be discerning about how much time we spend in face-to-face communication.
For example, consider whether the issue is one that can be dealt with by email or requires face-to-face discussion. If an email is the route chosen, assess who should be included on the email. There may be a time when the email chain is too long, and a conclusion can only be reached by getting the key people around a table to achieve a consensus.
Where parties are geographically dispersed, video conferencing can be cost and time effective as well as environmentally efficient. Face-to-face contact remains important for key relationships since alternatives, such as Skype or video, may limit impact of body language and vocal tone, and hinder meaningful chat, all of which contribute to development of more authentic relationships.
Social networking can be an integral part of your job search or career building - time should be invested in learning how to use it correctly. Check your workplace policy as it should clearly set out what is and what is not acceptable behaviour at work when using theinternet, emails, smart phones and networking websites.
Public speaking and presentations should be structured around the ‘rule of three’, the idea that things can be done in threes e.g. number of main points, supporting arguments or bullet points on a slide. Visual aids are a valuable tool but should not be overloaded with information; they should illustrate and encapsulate the concept presented verbally.
4. SET, SHARE AND CHECK OBJECTIVES
Thinking through objectives before any conversation, meeting, email or presentation or other communication is good discipline.
There may be personal objectives or business objectives; the path to success will be shorter if all parties agree on and communicate the issues to be addressed and resolved. People bring different perspectives and levels of understanding to situations. Articulating the objectives at the outset and regularly returning the discussion to those objectives will keep communication focussed on an outcome. Decisions made, and action points agreed should be communicated, with designated responsibility, to all parties.
5. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE; PREPARE AND PRACTICE
Preparation is key.
When formulating an email, think though how it will be received and why it is sent to each addressee.
In an interview, meeting or negotiation situation, establish clearly beforehand what the desired outcome is and be clear about the arguments and factors that support the goal. It is helpful to practice articulating these out loud, possibly in front of a mirror.
When presenting a proposal, project or public presentation, understand the attendee profile, be wary of jargon and keep language as simple as possible. Where technical terms are used, provide a glossary. Ensure you fully understand your content and demonstrate your experience. Consider what questions might be asked of you and prepare answers. Practice articulating these out loud.
Remember it is not what you say but what people hear, which is why it is important to check understanding. Effective communicators seek out feedback from the receiver(s) as to how the message is understood and attempt to correct any misunderstanding as soon as possible.
6. DEBRIEF REGULARLY
Developing communication skills is a career-long learning exercise and is facilitated by self-review and feedback after meaningful communication.
Develop action points by asking:
- did I achieve what I set out to do?
- how can I do it better next time?
Written feedback can be obtained from the audience. It is worth seeking verbal feedback where possible from counterparties or work colleagues. It may be helpful to have some communication training sessions including video recordings of you in action to identify areas for development, even if this is an uncomfortable experience initially!
There is always room for improvement in communication. The combination of control over posture and voice, effective communication channel, understanding of objectives, knowledge of counterparties and preparation could go a long way towards successful communication.
Author: Margaret O’Riordan FCT, Financial and Communication Consultant