Every time someone surveys employers about traits they seek in prospective hires, soft skills dominate the results. In fact, soft skills are so important for success that many people think they need a new name: power skills. Clearly, any employee wanting more power in the workplace would benefit from improving his or her soft skills. Using the word “soft” is misleading, not only because it connotes something fluffy, unimportant and not powerful but also because it is hard to master “soft” skills.
Let’s look at an example. Communication is a soft skill that always shows up in these conversations. When someone puts communication on the list of soft skills, what do they mean? Written communication? What kind – crafting effective emails? Writing reports?
What about verbal communication? What aspects – presentation skills? One-on-one skills? Listening and understanding skills?
Then there’s multimedia communication – using sound and image to enhance PowerPoint and creating podcasts and webinars, for example.
When you’re taking into consideration all of the above, mastering communication is hard. Communication is complex.
That complexity leads to another problem: the use of overly broad terms. Asking for “communication skills” is as useful as asking for “good employee skills.” Both are obviously desirable and obviously vague. These phrases need further definition.
Be specific. Let’s focus on the one aspect of communication that’s most critical to training: verbal communication. A trainer’s work is highly verbal, whether the training is in person or online, and trainers with strong oral communication skills often succeed, even if they lack expertise in other areas of communication. Yes, trainers write emails and use other forms of media to create e-learning, but their speaking controls the environment and the learning. There is no glitzy tool that will make up for poor presentation.
Being specific about types of communication to focus on is only one step toward making this soft skill less hard. Yes, there now have a narrower focus, but improving verbal communication is hard to do. Most people fear public speaking, and even when they feel confident as subject matter experts, they may not be comfortable or confident speakers.
How do you become an impressive oral communicator? Break the art of speaking into understandable, manageable pieces. Understand that all speaking involves two major components: what speakers do before they talk and what they do as they talk. These components are distinct, and they apply to every type of speaking. One-on-one, small group, large group, staff meeting, major presentation, informal talks, FaceTime conversation, podcast recording … all of these formats require developing a message and then saying it.
Intuitively, this makes sense, yet books about oral communication skills always fail to make this critical distinction. Some people are good at thinking of things to say but can’t quite get the message out. Some people are good at talking but have nothing of value to say. Great speakers master both aspects.
Before ever uttering a word, good speakers create messages with five considerations in mind:
- Audience: Who are the members of the audience? What do they know? What do they need to know? What are they capable of knowing? What mood are they in? What are their hot buttons? Talks, speeches and training should never be generic.
- Content: What information do they need to convey? What do they need to add to connect that information with the audience? What do they need to cut because of time constraints?
- Organization: What opening will engage and interest the audience? How can transitions be more effective? What closing will be powerful and inspiring? What should they say first? Last?
- Personal Appearance: What look will be appropriate and impressive for this audience?
- Visual Aids: How can they avoid common mistakes (e.g., slideshows buried with bullet points and complete sentences)? What images or sounds can they add to enhance the message? What adaptations must they make when moving from a large screen in a training room to a small screen on a mobile device?
Not all talks require visual aids, so sometimes they are not part of the preparation, but otherwise, each of these pieces is necessary to prepare to speak, whether to trainees in a classroom, webinar attendees online or 16-year-old being given car keys for the first time.
However, preparation is worthless if the message is never delivered. Great speakers have six aspects of performance in mind:
- Poise: Appear calm and confident, and avoid annoying tics that distract the audience.
- Voice: Make sure the audience hears every word. Avoid being too loud or too soft and blurring words together.
- Life: Put feeling, emotion and passion into the talk. Avoid dull, monotonous speaking.
- Eye Contact: Visually connect with each listener, and monitor audience reactions.
- Gestures: Use hand, face and body movements to enhance your spoken words.
- Speed: Adjust your pace; speed up, slow down and add pauses to emphasize points.
While the language used in these tips is different than some common descriptors of delivery, such as volume, projection, enunciation, articulation, expression, enthusiasm and inflection, all of those elements are covered. Remember, the goal is to make this soft skill less hard. That goal is accomplished by making the language easier to understand. Improve vocal modulation? No, add some life to your talk.
With this 11-step framework, improving vocal communication becomes doable. One speaker may have mastered gestures and speed but have dreadful visual aids. Another may have terrific content that is well-organized but have problems with nervous tics. Both now know exactly which pieces of effective communication they have mastered and which they need to improve on. There is still some hard work to do. It isn’t easy to give up those bullet points or old habits, but with this new understanding, developing the soft skill of communication becomes much easier.