Qualities of effective communication

Qualities of effective communication can be learned.  It is not something we are born with. 

“Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership. The leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to others. If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.” Gilbert Amelio, President and CEO of National Semiconductor Corporation

Dr. Alan Zimmerman’s Personal Commentary:

Do you want to be happy at home and successful on the job? Of course you do. And there are several things you can do to ensure those results. In fact, I’m in the process of writing my newest book on that very subject.

But let me give you a sneak peek. You will NEVER be happy at home or successful on the job if you’re not an effective communicator. And some of the latest research backs that up.

In a recent survey of government officials, a survey conducted by the American Management Association–Enterprise Government Solutions, the respondents were asked about their top training priorities for 2011. The survey people wanted to find out what kinds of skills and education would most likely lead to success on the job. The respondents said their top four priorities were leadership development, communication skills, supervisory training, and project management.

Woman learning the qualities of effective communication on the phone with clientWhen the survey people repeated the study in 2012, their respondents said their top four priorities were leadership development, critical thinking, project management, and communication skills. There were some changes in their priorities, which was to be expected. But the interesting thing is this … almost every study for dozens of years has placed leadership development and communication skills among the four most important things you have to do … if you want to be successful on the job.

Just be careful that you don’t cop out and think the research does not apply to you. No matter what your job title is, you still exert leadership in some way or other and you still have to communicate in some way or other. These two top priorities are too important for you to ignore.

Well, I’ve written extensively on the leadership portion, and one of my most requested programs continues to be “The Leadership Payoff: How The Best Leaders Bring Out The Best In Others … And So Can You.” So let’s focus on a few things you can do right now to improve your communication competence.

1. Remember the fact that you are always selling something.

That statement may rub you the wrong way. Indeed, you may be like many people who object to the very word “selling.”

I hope you’re not one of them, because if you are, you are doomed to a life of ineffective communication. You see … the truth is, every time you and I communicate, we are selling. Some of us sell products. Some of us sell ideas. Some of us sell viewpoints. And we all sell ourselves. In every arena of our careers and our personal lives … management, business, education, health care, government, church, clubs, and our home lives … we are engaged in selling something.

Once we realize that, it suddenly hits home that we had better get serious about communicating effectively if we want to others to hear us, to understand us, and be influenced by us. It is the very essence of success … getting others to “buy into” or “agree with” what we have to say. It is the very essence of being an effective leader, manager, supervisor, team leader, team member, parent, or spouse. We all want our listeners to make decisions in our favor.

So what does that take?

2. Successful communication starts with a clear objective.

In other words, it starts with a bit of pre-thought. You don’t just spout off something without giving it a bit of thought. And yet that is exactly what ineffective communicators do. With ignorant pride they’ll say things like, “I just call it the way I see it … or … I just shoot from the hip.” That’s stupid.

An effective presentation or a meaningful conversation is always preceded by an objective. And it doesn’t matter if you plan on talking ten minutes or ten hours. Before you start talking, you need to think about who is in your audience and the effect you want to have on them. You need to be aware of what you want to accomplish in your presentation to a prospective client, or what you want to accomplish as you sit down with an employee to discuss his/her performance, or you what you want to accomplish when you sit down and have a talk with your teenager about the choices he is making.

One of the greatest orators and writers of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The aim of all public speaking is to move the listeners to take action of some kind, action that they would not have taken in the absence of the talk.” I would say the same thing is true of all forms of communication. You need to be aware as to how you want to move the listeners … whether that be in their minds, hearts, or behaviors.

With your objective in mind,

3. Successful communication is characterized by passion.

As I coach various leaders, I tell them that people are more often influenced by the depth of their passion than the height of their logic.

Indeed, that very lesson was drilled into my head by my high school and college speech teachers. I remember when Dr. Sally Webb played recordings of speeches by Dr. Kenneth McFarland, who was considered the finest public speaker in America during the 1950’s to 1980’s. Even though his message of patriotism made perfect sense, I was much more enthralled with his passion. I couldn’t help but listen.

Years later, as a professor of communications, I read McFarland’s book entitled “Eloquence in Public Speaking.” The strange thing is … he gave very little attention to speaking techniques. His central message was that the key to effective communication is the passion that a person brings to his or her subject.

I saw how true that was when I listened to Wally “Famous” Amos speak. He started with very little in life but went on to build an extraordinarily successful chocolate cookie business. He was now devoting a great deal of his time and money on helping less fortunate people, especially those with literacy problems. His talk was excellent, but the main reason for its excellence was the fact that he spoke from his heart. He spoke with deep concern about the problem, not only for the people who were illiterate but also for the American nation that would lose its future and competitive edge if we allowed our kids to get by without learning how to read.

As a former speech professor, I could have critiqued his presentation. I could have shown him a few pointers on how to improve the structure of his presentation and the style of his delivery. He could have been more polished in some ways. But do you know what? None of that mattered. He was so passionate that every one of us listened with rapt attention.

Could the same thing be said about your communication? That you’re so passionate that people can’t help but listen and … hopefully … respond in the way you would like?

You will be able to answer to “yes” to those questions if you remember…

4. Successful communication takes place when you emotionally connect with your listeners.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t “get” this critical point. They don’t understand that we buy on emotion and justify with fact. And that goes from everything to buying a car to buying a President.

We may be very attracted to a certain car and we may really want a certain car. Indeed, we may end up buying it. But then we start to list all the reasons it was a good, logical, and correct decision. We can almost always find a few facts to justify our emotional decisions.

There’s no shame in admitting we’re emotional creatures and that our emotions have a powerful driving influence on everything we do, think, and choose. In fact, it’s foolish not to admit it. The truth is, if you want to reach, persuade or motivate people, you have to make emotional contact with them. I would even go so far as to say that the outcome of our next big election will be determined by which candidate does the best job of emotionally connecting with the American people.

Of course, a lot of candidates have to learn this lesson the hard way. Just look at some of the Presidential debates in the last few generations. It was generally agreed that Richard Nixon in 1960, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Michael Dukakis in 1988 won the debates … if you were listening by radio. But if you were watching the debates on TV, their opponents were considered the winners because they did a better job of emotionally connecting with their audiences.

Before the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, Kennedy trailed Nixon in the polls 53 to 47%. So what turned that around? When Nixon arrived at the Chicago television studio for the first debate, he was haggard and drawn-looking, still recovering from a knee injury, the loss of 20 pounds, and not feeling well. During the debate, Nixon sweated profusely under the stage lights, streaking his makeup and revealing his five o’clock shadow. By contrast, Kennedy arrived at the debate looking calm, assured and dashing. He was tanned from a recent campaign swing through California and he looked animated and totally in control as he spoke. His relaxed style reassured the voters, who were tired of the Cold War that had been going on for so long.

And then on the campaign trail, Nixon tried to appeal to people on the basis of facts, records and statistics.  He referred to his 173 meetings with President Eisenhower, his attendance at 217 National Security Council briefings, his 163 Cabinet meetings, his visits to 54 countries, and his extended discussions with 35 presidents, nine prime ministers, and two emperors. He had Kennedy beaten hands down when it came to experience.

But statistics are cold and cerebral. And so, the nation concluded, was Richard Nixon.  America wanted emotional contact with its leader and JFK was happy to oblige.

To a large extent, your success on the job and your success in relationships will depend on your communication effectiveness.  Don’t leave your communication skills to chance.  The more you improve in this area, the better off you’ll be in every other area of your life.