The most important business lesson I ever learned, I learned at eight years old. I will gladly share it with you, and many of you won’t be as grateful as you should, but I’ll live with that. Here it is: what you know, how well you do your job, and how much smarter you are than everyone else doesn’t impact your success nearly as much as it should. What makes the difference? The ability to effectively communicate a message to your intended audience will outweigh other considerations most of the time.
How did I come by this wisdom? Picture a third-grade classroom full of eight year olds. We are doing the dreaded “dinosaur project.” Every parent has survived something similar: you are supposed to take plastic dinosaurs and glue them into a shoebox with mountains and palm trees and water color paints and create a diorama.
My partners are diligently painting and gluing while I am hyperactively bouncing off the walls and generally making their lives miserable. I’m basically not much help except when it comes time to speak and tell the group about our project. I can have everyone’s attention? I’m allowed to show off how much I know about dinosaurs? Sign me up.
After I did my presentation, the teacher began to refer to our team as “Wayne’s group.” This was complete nonsense because I’d actually been the least productive member of the team, but I was the connection between our group and our audience. I was the one people remembered when they thought about our project.
Now even at that tender age, I realized a couple of things that would stick with me for the rest of my life, and have guided my career as a speaker, writer and trainer ever since:
1. People ascribe knowledge and power to those who can present information effectively. Good speakers are perceived as more competent than those who struggle to get the words out. Conversely, the inability to properly communicate what you know will often cause people to discount your actual knowledge and the power of your suggestions
2. There is very little correlation between your ability to speak about your work, and to actually do the work. They are different skills. Some people possess more of one than the other. The most valuable team members can do both
3. This is completely unfair, and proof the universe is an unjust, cruel place
4. It’s true nonetheless. Either come to grips with it or continue to wonder why you’re not getting the credit you deserve, your projects don’t get funded, or that other person gets the promotion.
The good news is that it’s possible to enhance your communication skills. It takes work, and more than a little practice and will power. It’s hard to do in person, since fear of public speaking is statistically the norm. Working virtually through online presentation tools complicates the job as well. Nearly 80% of people expected to use online presentation tools to manage, sell or present receive no training or coaching. That seems insane, given the importance of communication to businesses, but there you have it. Just because something is insane, doesn’t mean it’s not company policy.
Here are the things every subject matter expert or manager should be able to do:
- Present information (written or verbal) that is centered on the audience, rather than the content.
- Organize your content to be brief, clear, and answer the question “what are you telling me, and what do you want me to do about it?”
- Use analogies, metaphors and stories to help the audience relate to your content
- Speak without vocal, verbal or physical ticks that distract the audience. A prime example is the use of “ummms” and “errrrs”. While you may be gathering your thoughts, your audience interprets that as uncertainty or a lack of confidence
- Whether in person or online, project energy when you speak. That helps create the perception of confidence and credibility
- Engage the audience; read their expressions, responses, and encourage two-way communication. They’ll give you the cues needed to be an effective communicator
- Communicate well in both verbal and written forms
If you feel you’re not as good at any of these skills as you should be, start working on it. Get feedback from your peers and mentors. Practice and improve one skill at a time. There are plenty of ways to develop good communication skills.
You not only need to know your job, your content and be competent, you have to be perceived as competent. How you look, sound, write, dress and behave in front of your intended audience will either support your case, or weaken it.
This was true when I was eight years old, and it’s still true now.