In college, communications majors were looked at as the underachievers. These were the people who wanted to go the easy route and get the easy degree. They didn’t want to apply themselves, they just watched movies every class and wrote a couple papers to skate out with a degree. The real work was in Business, Economics, the Sciences, or Mathematics — that’s what you’ll be using in the real world, right? WRONG. Well, sort of — you’ll use the others, too. But, skill in communications is grossly underrated (and I’m not just saying that because I happen to have a degree in it).
In fact, “Communications is the most important skill any leader can possess.” I didn’t say it… Richard Branson did. I think he knows a thing or two about leadership.
While communications can be considered an art that takes practice to excel at, there are a few things we can change immediately to 10X our perceived maturity — especially by those our senior (you know, the boss you’re trying to impress). Yet, Communications is so elusive. It’s this mysterious word that means different things to different people. We know great communicators wield power, and likely assume they’re just born that way. The reality is that communications is a learned skill — an art form that takes constant practice. We never get to a place where we cannot still improve.
Listen More, Talk Less
Some of the best communicators I know are massive introverts. In fact, I believe that being introverted can make you a better communicator. I have a friend who is the catalyst for my hypothesis.
I have a friend who runs a successful wealth management practice. He’s master communicator. But he’s not the stereotypical extrovert we think of in a sales role. He’s soft spoken, easy going, and mild-mannered. Yet, he’s exceptional at his job and has built an impressive wealth management practice. Why? Because he listens. He’s one of the best listeners I know. I’ve seen him in meetings. He is present and engaged — and everything he says is carefully thought out. Every word he utters reminds the client that he hears them. Instead of rambling off sales scripts like buckshot — hoping something will stick — he thoughtfully responds with more questions than answers (although he has them). It works.
The key to good listening lies in our motivation for listening. Are we listening to respond, or are we listening to understand? I’ll often find myself in conversation waiting for the other person to stop so I can get my point across. I’ll know what I wanted to say halfway through their first sentence, and I zone out within seconds. That doesn’t make me a good listener or conversationalist. Instead, I need to focus on listening to understand. This is especially important during important discussions where the parties don’t see eye to eye. If we listen to understand, it makes our response far more thoughtful and effective. It also shows the other party or parties that we care about their point of view. If we listen to understand, we’ll often follow up with deeper questions that drive us to better clarity. Mastering this is a fundamental principle of quality leadership.
Know what your tendencies are! Do you talk too much? (That’s me) Are you too wordy? (Me, again) Do you mumble? Are you prone to typos? Everyone is different, and we all struggle with different aspects of communication. Nobody is naturally good at it all. I had a former colleague who was one of the best public speakers I’ve ever met — but ask him to write and you’d find he can barely spell his name. So, he works on his weaknesses while perfecting his skills.
Eliminate Filler Words
“Like” “Ya know” “Umm” “But-umm” (Watch How I Met Your Mother Season 5, Ep 13 and thank me later — seriously). The less filler words we have in our verbal communication, the more intelligent we come across. This takes a ton of practice. I’d add “like” as a filler word constantly, and still have to work at eliminating it from my speech.
I actually punish myself if I catch myself adding an unnecessary filler word. I’ll make myself stop do a chore around the house, do pushups or sit ups, let my wife come up with a punishment for me (it usually involves doing laundry). Now, I don’t drop and do 20 pushups in the middle of a conversation with a stranger (I wait for a more appropriate venue), but it’s helped me be more conscious of how I speak. Try it! Your speech will be better, your house will be cleaner, and you’ll be in better shape.
Read More, Cuss Less
We all know the guy who swears like a drunken sailor in public. It’s embarrassing. Don’t be that guy. In fact, strive to eliminate swearing from your daily vocabulary — especially if you’re using four letter words as fillers in your sentences for no good reason. It’s easier said than done — especially while stuck in traffic — so try my “punishments” technique to help you get better. It helps me!
A good vocabulary goes a long way in great communication, so work to build it up, not tear it down by muddling your thoughts with useless curse words. Build your vocabulary by reading great books and watching great movies. I’ve been known to borrow a great one-liner from an obscure movie from time to time. Screenwriters just get me, I guess. But, in all seriousness, feeding our mind great writing and dialogue will prompt us to improve our own communication. There can be a time and a place for swearing, but if you’re dropping F-bombs left and right, they lose their shock-value. If you’re known for being a great communicator, a well-placed four letter word will really grab attention when you need it to.
Tighten Up Your Writing (Practice, Practice, Practice)
We don’t write the same way we talk. Writing takes practice. You won’t become Hemingway overnight. But, taking time to improve your written communications will drastically improve your perceived maturity. Quality written communication is becoming more and more rare, so it’s a sure-fire way to differentiate yourself for the better — especially with your boss. Practice blogging, writing emails, or journaling. Start with learning the structure of the various forms of written communication. You may not enjoy reading, but studying great books, articles, blogs, and newsletters is a great way to learn writing technique.
You can also find a friend who is a skilled writer and ask them to help you get better. Show them your work and ask for feedback. Writing is like a muscle. It needs to be worked — the more you train, the better you become!
Speak From Your Diaphragm
It’s what singers and actors do. Speaking from your diaphragm (by breathing from it) projects confidence and helps your posture. Try breathing as if your lungs are right above your stomach. Practice breathing techniques. This will help you focus on your breathing and make your voice sound far more confident and poised.
Make Eye Contact (But, Not Too Much)
I had a friend, more of an acquaintance actually, who had the hardest time making eye contact with people. I always felt she came across incredibly cold and somewhat arrogant. Once I got to know her more, I found that couldn’t be further from the truth. She was very generous and caring. Yet, I still struggled with how she came across, because you would never pick those qualities up by meeting her for the first time. It finally hit me — or actually, it hit my wife who asked, “Does she ever make eye contact with people?” Boom. That was it! I made it a point to observe the next time we were together and, sure enough. This girl never makes eye contact, and that really took its toll.
I had another acquaintance who likely read to make sure you give people eye contact because it shows interest and confidence. He took it a little too far. With wide eyes and a contrived smile, he would stare you in the eye the entire conversation. He would stare me in the eye as I was trying to talk and process my part of the conversation. It was same feeling as me working with someone looking over my shoulder (and I hate that). The first time I had met him, I was so uncomfortable that I ended the conversation short. It was like he was looking through me — it was bizarre to say the least and really creeped me out.
So, what am I saying? You’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” Not exactly. There’s a happy medium. A great rule of thumb is to keep it a bout 50/50 — but I try to make sure I get eye contact on the first impression handshake, and the majority of when I’m talking. If I’m listening (which I should be doing more of), I won’t stare them down — they’re trying to process what they’re saying! That’s a great time to process the conversation and break eye-contact.
Master Public Speaking (Fake it Till You Make It)
For many, public speaking can be BRUTAL. It’s an incredibly common fear, and that makes it all the more valuable if you master it. We’re afraid of rejection, of failure, and embarrassment. Yet, great public speakers are admired for their ability to connect with an audience and powerfully communicate their message. This makes them masters of persuasion.
Public speaking is much like an art form, and as such it takes practice. Your first time likely didn’t (or won’t) go so well. But, the more you practice public speaking, the better you will become and the more comfortable you’ll be.
If you really want to level up your communication and 10X your perceived maturity, try looking into Toastmasters. They’re an organization/club with chapters all over the place. They exist to help one another with public speaking. It’s been a huge help for my wife (who is a leadership trainer at a major organization). Once we get comfortable speaking in front of groups, our confidence will begin to grow. Plus, we’ll set ourselves apart in our careers, too!
Study The Greats
I’ve found that we can learn a lot by studying the experts in a field, the same way we study a golfer’s swing to try and improve ours. Great communicators have a lot more in common that we’d think. There are systems to their speeches and how they writing. Read the works of great writers — both modern and historical, fiction and non-fiction. Watch truly great movies (they win Oscars for a reason, it’s not dumb luck). Listen to great speeches. Check out the best of Ted Talks, and listen to the speeches of former US Presidents as they were campaigning (I’d recommend studying the campaigns of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan). Learn what made them so great. Study the experts as you would any subject and you’ll pick up things you can immediately implement in your world