Technical Professionals Still Need Communication Skills
I recently caught up with a good friend and we began talking about our jobs. When I told him I was an executive coach specializing in communication skills, he winced a bit. I asked about his reaction, and after some prodding, he confessed he didn’t really see the need for communication skills training.
As a “technical” professional, he thought soft skills were for those who didn’t have the smarts to be technical and needed to compensate with “manipulation” tactics. I knew exactly where he was coming from because I used to feel the same way. Having majored in Chemistry and Economics, I always thought of communication skills as optional and easy to pick up along the way.
Needless to say, my views have changed.
After further debate, we agreed that, on average, technical people (engineers, scientists, programmers, etc.) were poor communicators especially with non-technical people.
So why are technical professionals so weak at communicating?
They Don’t Take It Seriously
Many technical professionals categorize communication skills under nice-to-have instead of must-have. They view “soft” skills as mere decoration and without substance. I’ve even heard some express it as a cover up for weak technical ability.
This thinking occurs because many technical employees are smart. They find communication skills intellectually simple. This is the same reason they hold art history and philosophy with less regard than computer science or chemical engineering.
I used to be in this camp, and to be fair, communication skills, intellectually, are straightforward. It is not difficult to understand that looking at your audience when you speak is more effective than looking at your notes. What changed my mind about these “soft and simple” skills was when I realized that:
Successful leaders use communication skills much more often than their technical skills.
Take a minute and think of a leader you admire. What do you think their workday looks like?
Are they crunching numbers in Excel or writing lines of code? Are they combing through market analytics or designing new product features?
Most likely not.
That’s what they hire people under them to do. They spend their time inspiring others to buy in to their vision, motivating and delegating their staff to execute, and building strong relationships with their key clients and stakeholders to get more business. They constantly are using “soft” skills to manage themselves, their message and their audience.
Being able to communicate effectively is the reason why Steve Jobs was the face of Apple and Steve Wozniak is not.
They Are Not Expected to Be Strong Communicators
Technical professionals usually are not required to interact with external clients, so they are not expected to have polished communication skills. These expectations provide a false sense of security and reinforce the idea that communication skills are not important. This turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby technical employees are not offered and even are denied quality communication skills training because it is not a part of their jobs. Back- and mid-office employees face similar biases.
There is a reason front-office professionals are usually the ones who make it to the C-suite. It is true that their value is easier to quantify (revenue), but what most people overlook is the disproportionate amount of training they get in influencing and negotiating when compared to their internally facing counterparts.
As more of our clients work to break down the silos in their companies, we see major efforts to provide communication skills training to a broader employee population. Management teams are beginning to recognize the value of strong communication skills at all levels.
Even for employees with no aspirations for senior management or the C-suite, to be more effective, they need to get their point across both concisely and persuasively.
It’s Not Their Personality
The final reason technical professionals communicate poorly is because they hold themselves back. The pervasive view is that strong communicators are extroverts and that can’t be taught.
There are two things wrong with this view:
- Strong communication has nothing to do with being outgoing or shy. There are many talkative people with poor communication skills; they tend to be bad listeners. At the same time, there are many introverted people who are very strong communicators. Being good at communicating is a function of deliberate practice, which brings me to the next point.
- Communication skills are not innate. They can be taught. Like any skill, it takes proper training, the right feedback, and continuous practice to move from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence.
So what now?
Acknowledge that communication skills are crucial to your professional and personal development. And make it a priority right now to improve those skills.
Robert Chen is an executive coach who uses his science, business, and cross-cultural background to help technical leaders communicate with more impact and build better working relationships. He has worked with high-performing leaders in management consulting, banking and financial services, accounting and professional services, and academia. He works at Exec|Comm, a global communication skills consultancy, in the New York office.