"Communication skills." The words conjure up images of a lawyer delivering a masterful closing argument or a public figure delivering a visionary speech. But even if your career path lacks that high Hollywood drama, strong communication skills can make or break you. Especially in meetings and when you're trying to make a case for something — situations you'll face in any field. Here are a few skills to start developing now if you want to rock every meeting and make every case like a boss from now on.
ROCK EVERY MEETING
They may be the bane of our professional existence, but meetings are essential for connecting with people, gathering information, and developing a plan of action. Handle them well by using effective communication, and they may even help you do your job better. Here's how.
1. Listen. Really listen.
Good communication starts with understanding the other party, so pay attention to the verbal and non-verbal way people communicate. It’s not only words that are important here — pay attention to tone; facial expressions; whether or not they make eye contact; all of it.
2. Know what message body language is carrying, too.
On the subject of nonverbal communication, knowing a thing or two about body language is a key ingredient of effective communication, as well as a super valuable interpersonal skill. A person’s feelings can manifest loads of ways physically — posture; hand and arm gestures; even crossing one’s legs can convey strongly negative nonverbal communication. Expansive poses, on the other hand, show confidence and are interpreted more positively (meaning those manspreaders unfortunately have a leg up here).
3. Tune in — the whole time.
I get it. Meetings are long and boring and a barrier to actually getting your work done. But if you zone out when the conversation turns to things that don't directly relate to you, you might miss an important connection or opportunity.
4. Give everyone speaking the respect of your attention.
The value people bring to the table isn't always a reflection of their job title. So pay attention to what everyone has to say. You never know where the next great idea will come from.
5. Let people finish (usually).
So, something someone said just sparked the most brilliant thought you've ever had. I know how tempting it is, but there's really no need to bulldoze over someone else to be heard. Wait until they're done speaking, THEN dazzle them.
6. Stop waiting for "your turn."
Here's where that "usually" in tip #5 applies. When you're in a large group, or even a small group of very outspoken people, you might actually HAVE to muscle your way into the conversation. If you have something valuable to contribute, don't wait around for someone to ask your opinion. Grab the first opening you can.
7. Give others an opening.
I grew up with a loud and rowdy family, so muscling my way into a conversation is a skill I'd developed by preschool, but assertive communication doesn’t come naturally to everyone. To truly communicate well, you also should try to be aware of other people's communication styles. Some people are simply conditioned to wait their turn. It doesn't mean they have any less to contribute. Shutting your mouth and opening the door just a crack for them can really pay off.
8. Don't talk just to talk.
The operative word in Tip #6 is “valuable.” You don't always have to say something to participate. Sometimes, simply listening and paying attention well enough to effectively process the information afterwards is just as important.
9. Know your role.
At my company, multiple team members often attend the same meeting with a client. So before heading in, we take a few minutes to clarify who is responsible for communicating and capturing certain information. This way everyone knows exactly what they need to put into and get out of the conversation, and we don’t wind up speaking over one another.
10. Come prepared.
Take the time to gather some intel about what you'll be discussing, even if it's just a few minutes. The more you know going in, the easier it is to join the conversation in a meaningful way.
11. Ask questions.
Better to look uninformed than be uninformed. If you don't understand a term or a reference that someone has used, ask for clarification. If you are at the meeting primarily in a listening capacity (for instance, we often invite our interns to client meetings to give them a feel for the interaction), jot down the question and be sure to get clarification from someone later.
MAKING A CONVINCING CASE
My agency specializes in branding and marketing, which means we spend a lot of time pitching. We pitch marketing strategies. We pitch campaign ideas. We pitch ourselves as the company you most want strategy and campaign ideas from. No matter what field you work in, you're going to have to pitch something one of these days. Here are a few tips to help you make your case.
1. Speak to the priorities of your audience.
First and foremost, remember that you're not trying to convince yourself. So figure out what message matters to the people you're talking to. Then structure your information around what they need to hear, not what you want to tell them.
2. Tell a story.
Burying people in an avalanche of information is not making a case. A great case has a clear beginning, middle and end. You can get as creative as you want to here, but if you're stumped on a structure, follow simple term paper rules. State your point up front. Support your point with relevant information. Restate your point. (And while doing so, of course, employ the proper nonverbal cues as well — eye contact, good posture, etc.)
3. Make information easy to digest.
Let's just assume that someone is reading your e-mail on their phone while speeding down the highway on their way to happy hour. They shouldn't be, but that doesn't mean they won't. Don't hit them with a twelve-inch email or a forty-page Powerpoint presentation. Instead, think headers, numbers, and bullets. Make sure the message’s really important information pops out and won't be ignored.
4. Use the personal to bring the factual to life.
When talking to clients about the power of a great brand, I used to start off with a little infographic that dissected a brand's various elements. Last year, someone on my team suggested incorporating a more concrete example. So I started telling a story about Chick-fil-A, and how they won me over the day I took my two toddlers out to eat alone, which would've been an absolute disaster had it not been for the Chick-fil-A cashier who escorted us to a table and took our order like it was a full-service restaurant. What. A. Difference.
Where the infographic drew polite nods, the story sparks smiles, laughter, and many side conversations with clients afterwards about how much THEY love Chick-fil-A. By speaking to people’s feelings instead of just data points, my communication style pivoted. In the end, I'm still making the same points, but in an interpersonal way that's far more memorable and effective.
5. Prepare to lose.
In one great scene of the HBO show "The Night Of," a district attorney asked someone helping her on a case, "How am I going to lose?" This is a GREAT question to wrestle with. You already know all the reasons that you're right. Now, think through what might be wrong with what you're proposing, and have a plan for addressing it.
6. Practice. Practice. Practice.
I've been doing this a long time, and I still get butterflies in my stomach when I think about standing in front of a bunch of people (or sitting down with one person) and making a case for something that matters. Of course, this isn’t unique to me; public speaking gives as much as 80 percent of people anxiety. For me, practicing what I'm going to say beforehand makes a big difference. Some people write and rehearse full scripts. Some do dry runs with their team. I like to bullet out the points I know I need to make then run through them a few times, finding a few different ways to say them. You have to find the method that works for you, but FIND IT. Don't skip this step. It helps you build confidence, and confidence is key to making a great case.
STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW
This stuff should really go without saying, but a friendly reminder never hurts.
1. Keep it professional. No profane language. No emojis. No exceptions.
2. Keep it accurate. Fact check. Spell check. Grammar check. And please, spare us all that "Pardon the typos, sent from my phone" nonsense.
3. Be polite. Please. Thank you. You're welcome. These are Kindergarten skills. Surely, we can manage them.
4. Be yourself. You're awesome. Believe it, and so will everyone else.
Employ a few of these verbal and nonverbal communication tactics, and you’ll soon be confident in your ability to communicate effectively!
Diane Levine is the Associate Creative Director of the award-winning branding and marketing agency Think Creative. She specializes in writing, branding, marketing and inspiring people to believe in their own awesomeness so they can find more joy at work and in life (she writes more on those topics on her personal blog, Operation Goosebumps). She is a mom of two, a wife of one, and a collector of many pairs of high heels.