01 Aug We have more ways than ever to communicate, so why are we losing the art?
I was sitting in an Uber a few weeks ago when the driver raised the topic of communication. ‘Young people just don’t know how to keep a conversation going,’ he said. ‘They’re losing the art.’ I wondered aloud if it’s because they’re distracted, on their phones. ‘No, it’s more than that. It’s like how people communicate is actually changing.’
Now, you don’t just notice this with young people. It’s becoming an epidemic in businesses. I find it ironic that in an age where we have more channels than ever to communicate, people and brands struggle to do it well. Often in business, soft skills are viewed one-dimensionally — as just about the words you say. The art of smart communication requires a lot more.
Conversations make the world go round. It’s how we share knowledge and experiences. How great ideas are spread. How we engage and motivate teams.
20 ways to improve communication at work and build emotional connection
Content: think about what you want to say.
1. Good communication is about getting the right information across in the right order. Sounds obvious, but if you speak before you think, you’ll probably come across as vague and waffly. The natural order of things is to think first before you speak. Unfortunately, few politicians have heard of this advice.
2. Think about your audience. If you’re talking to a peer about a project you’re both steeped in, it’s okay to use acronyms or shorthand. But if you’re speaking to an external stakeholder, you’ll need more explanation. Don’t assume the other person has the same level of knowledge as you.
3. Business jargon is a no, no. Some of the best communicators of our generation, like Tony Fadell, father of the iPod, breaks down his crazy, amazing, and highly specialised wisdom into bite-sized pieces that we can all understand.
4. If it’s an important conversation, take time to map it out — on paper or in your head. Practise with a trusted colleague or coach. Visualise yourself having the conversation before you actually do so.
5. The more specialised you are in a subject, the more you’re likely to communicate poorly to people who don’t share that specialisation. This extends point 3 above. One way around this is to always think of your context first, the scene setting, before you dip into the detail. Then choose 2/3 salient examples to illustrate your points, before then going broad again at the end. This way of communicating looks like an hour-glass — you start wide and broad, explain the bigger picture, then go specific — before widening out at the end.
Harness the power of stories
6. Stories can be an excellent way to explain a topic that is difficult to understand, or that requires ‘bringing to life.’ Finance legend, Kathy Murphy, President, Fidelity Personal Investing, is a pro at this. She’s known for sharing her own stories and experiences to educate people about investments and personal finances. This makes her relatable. Richard Branson does so, too.
7. Our brain loves facts but they can be overwhelming. Facts and figures engage a small area of the brain but stories and metaphors have a way of engaging multiple brain regions that not only stimulate logic but elicit emotional responses. Facts provide a hook for the brain but our colourful word choice is what maintains attention.
8. Structure your stories in such a way so they trigger multi-sensory cortices: motor, visual, olfactory, auditory, etc. Engage the senses by describing how the ‘strong aroma of coffee lifts the spirits’ or how the ‘cool rain on my skin brings back teenage memories.’
9. The best communicators know this template by heart: the template of human drama and the triumph of the indomitable spirit: It starts with facing challenges, overcoming adversity and immortalising the lesson. Make your stories memorable by using this template. Award-winning Kenyan-Mexican actress, Lupita Nyong’o, uses intentional transitions to reveal her own hopes and emotions in order to inspire people.
Better delivery: ensure your message cuts through the noise
10. Good communication requires a whole-brain approach. Great communication requires the heart as well as the head.
11. It’s important to realise that what people don’t say is as important as what they do say. Be aware of the silences, not just the words.
12. According to communication expert, Judy Apps, author of the lyrical, thought-provoking The Art of Communication, our brains have a huge impact on how well we communicate. While the left-brain focuses on words and arguments, and is directed towards an outcome, most elements of communication are right-brain related: meaning, inference, intention, context, tone, facial expression, gesture, humour, irony and metaphor. You need to be aware of both elements.
13. When you communicate succinctly, think about the how — not only the what. Consider body language, gestures, eye contact and facial connection. Avoid negative body language like crossing your arms, keeping your head down, or averting your eyes.
14. Watch for a mismatch between what you’re saying and your body language, people pick up on that. There’s a non-verbal aspect of communicating called subtle non-verbal responses: this is being aware of what else is going on.
15. If you nod ‘yes’ while saying ‘no’ people will think you’re not completely telling the truth. An example of this is the aptly termed ‘duping delight’. It’s when a liar says he didn’t do it but smiles at an inappropriate moment.
16. Dr John Lund, author of How to Hug a Porcupine: Dealing With Toxic and Difficult to Love Personalities (now that’s a mouthful!) says people take more cues from what you’re NOT saying versus what you are saying. He goes on:
- 92 per cent of communication is non-verbal
- 55 per cent is based on your facial expressions and your body language
- 37 per cent is based on the tone of your voice
- only 8 per cent is based on the words you say.
17. Think about the place you hold an important conversation. Avoid being somewhere noisy or at the coffee machine. This lets your listener/s know that he/she is important enough to have your undivided attention.
18. Be assertive. This is not about being hostile or contentious. But expressing your feelings confidently, honestly, and openly while being respectful of others. Effective communication isn’t about forcing your opinion on others but trying to understand the other person.
19. Keep stress in check. Speak calmly and strategically, with pauses to collect your thoughts.
20. Your breathing is also part of the way you communicate. Breathe at a steady pace.
So wherever you are, in an Uber, in a lift, practise some of these skills. Hopefully, you’ll become more equipped to be a better communicator — a skill we’ll all need as we navigate new channels, and move rapidly into voice-first technology. Bring back the art of better conversation. Everyone has a story to tell.
So, will you tell it?