Communicating Success: Mastering the Most Important Workplace Skill

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In my experience, the trait employers care about most is how long you can hold your breath underwater. HR gurus view it as a sign of discipline; CEOs like knowing they’ll be able to sustain productivity during biblical floods. 

But according to a 2016 LinkedIn survey, the most desired trait among American employers is good communication skills. The ability to clearly convey an idea or instructions to someone else, be it your team members, your boss, your customers, or an audience watching or listening online. 

Whether you’re working with colleagues in-person, collaborating remotely, designing presentations or producing audio and video, effective communication is the key to success. It’s how you sell a proposal, make a sale, add a subscriber, and ensure your barber doesn’t leave your hair too short or too long. 

While interpersonal skills are part of the equation, you don’t need to be charismatic to be a great communicator — sometimes you don’t even need to talk.

In this post we’ll discuss what effective communication means, and explore the concepts and tools that can help optimize your communication skills, whatever it is you’re trying to say.

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Why communication skills are key to success

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The value of effective communication extends well beyond the professional realm — it can help you smooth over tense situations with friends or settle family disputes over dinner. 

Don’t worry, we’re not going to offer advice here on how to deal with your in-laws. The point is that literally every situation or interaction benefits from clear communication, which is why it’s so in-demand in the professional realm. 

From training new employees, not boring your colleagues, maintaining client confidence or selling your vision for a new product or project — the message matters, as does the delivery. 

Types of communication

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Before we get to practical advice, a quick primer on the communications toolbelt. What types of communication skills do you need, and in what professional situations will you need to use them?

Verbal communication

  • This is a fancy way of saying “talking,” either one-on-one or within a group, from in-person meetings, to Zoom calls, Google Meet, or old-school phone calls. Heck, even casual discussions in a company break room (remember those?) would count.
  • Understanding the dynamics of verbal communication is also crucial to succeeding in podcasting or other audio-based mediums. 

Non-verbal communication

  • Think body language, facial expressions, posture or how you pitch your voice. Sometimes these cues convey your feelings far more clearly than words.
  • Failing to account for the importance of non-verbal communication can quickly alienate your audience and undermine your message.  

Written communication

  • This doesn’t only apply to the professional writers among us. Examples of written communication include emails, Slack messages, quarterly reports, social media posts, and blog posts.
  • Written communication is ubiquitous, regardless of your industry. That’s especially true with so many of us working remotely, and so much of our daily interactions occurring via text.

Visual communication

  • This is the process of communicating an idea through pictures, photographs, videos, charts, and graphs. Like written communication, it’s part of almost every industry. And it’s extremely versatile, with the ability to overcome language and cultural barriers. 
  • Visual communication can also include slideshows, product demos, and graphic design.

6 skills for effective communication

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As with anything, effective communication takes preparation and practice. Some of us are born networkers, while others were avoiding social events long before the pandemic. Whichever side of the spectrum you occupy, here are some specific skills that will help you thrive when it’s your time to say something. 

1. Active listening

Have you ever noticed on podcasts or radio interviews, the guest will talk for a while and then the host will say, “So what your saying is” and then basically summarize what was just said. You might call that dramatized active listening. And it’s incredibly important for effective communication. 

It makes the people you’re communicating with feel heard, understood and important. Active listening can also involve taking occasional notes, maintaining regular eye contact, using facial expressions to show you’re interested, following up with questions or summarizing the key upshots of what you just heard. 

By practicing active listening, you’ll avoid miscommunication in the short-term and build rapport and trust with colleagues in the long-run. And sometimes you hardly have to say anything. 

2. Projecting confidence

There are words for people who project confidence all the time: arrogant, egomaniac, narcissist. If you’re like most of us, your level of confidence varies depending on the situation or circumstances — that’s human. Self-doubt is healthy, and admitting your shortcomings is the first step to self improvement. 

All that being said, confidence is absolutely an asset in the workplace. It lets people know that you’re ready to take on a task, lead a team or launch a project. It shows you’re eager to learn. And just like active listening, it can be practiced — and greatly enhanced with preparation. 

Start with non-verbal cues like a relaxed body stance (neither rigid nor slouched), consistent eye contact and a smile. Then play to your strengths. There’s a place for humility and self-deprecation, but know when it’s time to say “I can do that” or “I have an idea” — and mean it. 

3. Be empathetic and respectful

You’re never going to completely avoid conflict or get along with everyone you work with. However, practicing empathy and respect can make working together a whole lot more pleasant. And when problems do arise, a history of compassion can make it much easier to deal with — and avoid hard feelings in the aftermath. 

If people know you’re coming from a good place, they are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt or even forgive your missteps. Think of it as the antidote to toxic behavior in the workplace. People are going to annoy you — maybe even piss you off. 

Your ability to bring a calm and open mind to even the most frustrating situations allows you to stay focused on the job at hand — and perhaps help that person resolve a long-simmering problem. 

4. Being conscious of your nonverbal cues

Nonverbal cues aren’t always a good thing. Sometimes a roll of the eyes or an ill-timed sigh can kill the conversation — even if it was entirely unintentional. When you’re in a professional environment, be conscious of these cues and how they come across. 

For example, leaning in too close while you’re talking to another person can be seen as an invasion of personal space. Raising your voice too loudly can be viewed as aggressive, while speaking too quietly can convey a lack of confidence or conviction. 

Be yourself, just be aware of how you come across.

5. Be responsive

Whatever the means of communication, responsiveness is key to showing that you care. In conversation, responding quickly shows that you’re engaged and interested. And with emails or instant messages, it shows that you’re on the ball. 

Each response is a small sign that you’re confident, effective, and ready to get the job done. Of course, you can’t always respond to a message right away. But if you aren’t available during normal business hours, make you have an autoresponder or voicemail to explain the situation. 

And then respond ASAP. No one likes to be left waiting. 

6. Providing feedback

Lastly, get into the habit of providing good, constructive feedback to others, especially when it is requested. It can be awkward for sure, but in a healthy workplace it’s crucial to fostering collaboration and mutual improvement. 

Just don’t go overboard. Be precise and selective with your feedback — don’t whip out a laundry list of someone’s shortcomings. And be sure to include positive feedback along with constructive criticism. 

Also, if you’ve practiced Point 3 (being empathetic and respectful) then providing feedback is a whole lot easier for all involved. 

If you want to learn more on improving communication skills, read up on Descript’s tips and tricks for virtual teaching.

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