Developing Great Communication Skills

Excerpt from “Sharing The Sandbox” by Dean Brenner (AG Books, 2012).

By Dean Brenner

Have you ever been in the company of one of those rare souls who can clearly articulate a point? Have you ever met that person who can artfully harness a meeting by clearly stating what the group is struggling to express? Have you ever seen that person who walks onstage and absolutely owns the room the moment they open their mouth?

I’ve met people like this a few times in my life. And when you watch and listen to someone with these types of skills, it’s something special to see and hear. When we are in the presence of someone like this, we tend to remember the moment, their name, and what they are talking about. The rest of the people we listen to tend to fade into the background noise, exiting our consciousness as quickly as they entered it.

Great communication in the modern business world, therefore, requires that the speaker think about being memorable. Think about this: When you speak, how easy do you make it for your team or your audience to remember what you say? In the 21st century, it’s critical to prepare and structure your message so you make it easy for your audience to remember what you say; otherwise, you risk quickly fading from memory. There is simply too much information coming at each of us every day. Make it easy for your audience. Your audience will benefit and so will you.

We can have all the book knowledge on leadership, followership, and teams, and we can be prepared to take all the necessary steps, but if we lack the ability to communicate persuasively, we are destined to fall short of our goals.

Are you persuasive? When you speak and write, do you have the ability to persuade people to do what you want them to do and to believe what you want them to think? Think carefully before you answer this one, because in my experience, precious few people have this skill at their fingertips. I’ll submit that the power to persuade is, as David McCullough writes, power indeed. The people who can use their words and their actions to persuade others to buy their product, follow their lead, invest in their idea, or adopt their strategy have a powerful competitive advantage. Those with the power to persuade are in demand. People want to be on their teams. People follow their lead. Persuasive people tend to get noticed, heard, remembered, and, eventually, promoted.

Communication is always important, but especially so when you are the leader of an organization. Leadership communication must be able to withstand extra scrutiny and has to go above and beyond the normal level of good communication. All leadership communication must have a purpose and an intended impact. Followers and listeners will pick up every nuance of the communication. People will hold you to a higher standard than others. They will parse your words, looking for your true intentions. They will dissect your communication and discuss not whether it could have been better, but specifically how it should have been better. If you are a leader within your organization, or aspire to become one, can your communication skills stand up to that level of scrutiny? They need to, because if they don’t, your lack of good communication skills eventually will impact your career path.

My colleagues and I at The Latimer Group have done a good deal of writing, speaking, and blogging about this topic. We are well aware that persuasive communication is not easy. It takes plenty of thought, planning, and practice. But the concepts that lead to persuasive communication are pretty straightforward. Here are five of the most important. If put these into practice, they will help you immediately.

  1. Have a clear goal every time you speak. What do you want your audience to think or do when you are done speaking? If you start with a clear goal for your communication opportunity, your preparation will be quicker and of better quality. Set a clear goal for yourself, and then focus all of your preparation on helping yourself achieve that goal. Only when you know your desired destination does it become possible to get where you want to go.
  2. Spend time thinking about the needs and desires of your audience. Before designing the agenda for a meeting, for instance, spend some time thinking about the current mindset of your audience. What will cause them to say “yes” or “no” to your requests? Too many of us communicate from an egocentric place. Don’t spend all your time thinking about what you want to say. Spend most of your time thinking about the issues your audience will care about. When you do this, you will be more likely to design a message that will persuade them, and you also will show them the respect they deserve.
  3. Make the benefits to your audience the common denominator to every aspect of your message. Do you want to persuade someone of something? Then make the benefits the highlight of the message. If your message lacks clear benefits, you will struggle to persuade anyone of anything.
  4. Be authentic and sincere. When you deliver your message, don’t worry too much about how you stand, where you put your hands, how you cock your head, or how many jokes you should tell in your opening. Those things do matter, but what matters most is your confidence to be yourself. Just be authentic. When you stand up to speak, speak in your own voice and with your own style. Do it your way, just as if you were speaking to a friend. Equally important, be sincere. When you stand up to speak, show the audience you care about the topic. To quote presidential speechwriter James Hume, who wrote for seven presidents: Preparation begins “the moment you start caring. Only then are you ready to speak to an audience. Because an audience can be convinced only when they see you care about what you are discussing.”
  5. Practice. Acquiring any new skill requires many things, coaching and instruction among them. If you want to become a better baseball player, acquiring new knowledge and finding a good coach are important steps. But without sufficient practice, all the books and coaching in the world won’t make you better. The same goes for communication. Many of our client companies ask us to quantify The Latimer Group’s value to them, asking, “Can you guarantee communication improvements?” Guarantees are a fool’s game. We guarantee the transfer of knowledge and good tools and frameworks. But unless the person we are coaching makes a commitment to improvement, any guarantee we might provide is worthless. There are no magic bullets, no get-rich-quick schemes, no lose-100-pounds-in-100-days ploys. The amount you practice will determine your success.

When you do all these things, you simply are increasing the chances that you will connect with your audience, and when you do that, you make it more valuable for them and more likely that you will enjoy a successful meeting, phone call, or presentation.

One of the key elements of your success as a leader is your ability to get groups of people to move together toward a common goal. How can you achieve that without being able to communicate in a clear and powerful way?

Finally, always remember that great communication skills are not one way. Great communication is also about listening, absorbing what has been delivered, and reflecting back what you have heard into your next communication. Your leadership communication should not only be focused on the outbound, from you to the audience. You should focus on the inbound, as well, and listen to what others are telling you.

Do you want to become a better leader or teammate? Spend some time examining your own communication skills.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher AG Books from “Sharing The Sandbox” by Dean Brenner (Copyright © 2012 by Dean Brenner). For more information, visit www.sharingthesandbox.com.

Dean M. Brenner is the president of The Latimer Group. He is an executive coach, public speaker, and an Olympic-caliber athlete. A member of the U.S. National Sailing Team for three years, he marched as team leader in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing, China, in 2008. Brenner is the author of “Move the World: Persuade Your Audience, Change Minds and Achieve Your Goals” and “Sharing the Sandbox: Building and Leading World-Class Teams in the 21st Century.” He earned an MBA in Finance from The Olin School of Business at Babson College, an MA in Shakespearian Literature from The University of Warwick, England, and his BA in English Literature and Government from Georgetown University.

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