Top tips for communicating

Ways in which to improve your communication skills using physical and psychological triggers

Some people will come across as natural communicators; they can walk into a room and instantly develop a rapport with everyone. It seems that the rest of us have to work hard to make sure we get our messages across as best as possible.

You don’t have to be the life and soul of the party to make yourself heard and understood; you just need to bear some important factors in mind when speaking and listening. Even the best public speakers have often learnt these tips, to build on their ‘natural’ speaking flair.

Who am I speaking to and what do we want from this conversation?

All the polite small talk in the world won’t matter if you don’t actually get around to what you want to say; and it’s worth bearing in mind that the person you’re talking to may have very different expectations for the outcome of your discussion.

Face-to face is best....but

It’s also important to recognise that different methods of communication have different strengths and weaknesses. Nothing beats face-to-face meeting, where body language and tone of voice give vital clues to how someone is feeling. But there will be times when that won’t be possible, and you will need to consider whether a phone call, an email, a letter or a Skype chat are more polite or effective.

Face-to-face “Dos and don’ts”

DO listen. It’s just as important a part of communication as speaking. Don’t just wait for the other person to finish speaking and then jump in with what you want to say; respond to their message and reflect on it  in your reply.

DO use body language. Eye contact and nodding show that you’re interested in what someone else has to say, but don’t be a Churchill dog about it – make sure that you are closely listening to what is being said and react appropriately.

DO think about your audience. Is it someone you know or is more formality required? Are there any cultural factors to consider when speaking to someone who has a different background to yours?

DO be yourself. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. If your personality comes across in what you say, it will put others at ease.

DON’T lose your cool. Conflicts often arise when people misunderstand what someone else says, particularly when judging the tone of digital communication. Take a moment to consider: did they really mean to say that, or have I read it wrong?

DON’T treat everyone the same. Some people will not appreciate certain types of jokes or topics of conversation. Remember to tailor your words to the people you’re talking to.

DON’T hog the conversation. There’s a fine line between assertiveness and seeming pushy. If other people aren’t getting a word in, they may not leave with a favourable impression of you or, by extension, the union.

DON’T lose your sense of humour. Once you’ve gauged your audience, a bit of gentle humour can break the ice and make your message memorable. But make sure it’s appropriate for your audience.

George Orwell’s writing tips

George Orwell had 5 golden rules for writers to get their point across which are a good starting point for written communications:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous. (In other words always use common sense).   

Looking back from a 21st century perspective, some of his rules may seem a little outdated and restrictive, but the philosophy behind them remains one of the best we have. 

Particularly worth bearing in mind is Orwell’s point about jargon. If you use terms that your reader may not understand, you are excluding them from the conversation; you may make them feel they do not belong in a conversation with you. By using simpler words or explaining abbreviations, for example, you can ensure that you are bringing everyone with you. It’s simple politeness.

Keeping emails to five sentences

It’s easy to ramble on in emails and not get to the point of what you’re trying to say. This is because emails blend business and personal communication and we are tempted to start off an email as we would a conversation, with some chitchat or small talk to establish a common footing.

With email, you can get straight down to business. The ‘five sentences’ principle does what it says on the tin: if you can restrict most (obviously not all) of your emails to just that, you can discipline yourself. Your recipients will appreciate the lack of clutter in their inboxes and find your message more easily.

Edit yourself

One of the key parts of effective communication is going back over what you’ve written and improving it.

Bruce Ross-Larson’s book Edit Yourself is a good way of thinking about your communications and how to improve them. Read your work out to someone else: do they understand it?

It can be hard to look at your own work and see room for improvement, so first have a look at someone else’s email, report or article and see what you don’t like. If you were writing it, how would you make it better? Are there some principles you can apply to your own communication?

Public speaking

Some people are terrified by public speaking; others seem to thrive. But even the most confident-seeming communicators can be nervous about taking to the stage and delivering a message. With practise you will develop confidence.

One of the best ways to learn good public speaking is to watch people who are good at it. There are plenty of examples on YouTube of excellent presentations, and the BBC ‘speaker improve’ site is full of examples from the likes of Alastair Campbell, Ewan MacGregor and Michael Vaughan on how to deliver your message to your audience.

Body language basics

You will have heard that a certain percentage – some say 50%, some 60 of communication is non-verbal, but how can you use that to your advantage? There are countless self-help gurus out there linking body language with neuro-linguistic programming and emotional intelligence to promise results – for a price. But how can you tell the gems from the junk?

The power of the personal

If you can personalise your message, you can communicate it more effectively. Politicians eager to win votes market their policies as coming from their own personal journeys of discovery: the ‘story of self’ provides an effective explanation of values and visions.

Much of President Obama’s success was put down to his communication of his own story, and some of his failure explained by not following through with that.

The power of anecdote brings an intimacy to your communication which could resonate with your audience, providing an emotional response. What does your message mean to you? How can you personalise it? Also anecdotes are harder to refute – who wants to put their hand up and say “I don’t believe that happened to you”?!

Get planning

Before you embark on any communication – one-to-one, on the telephone or in a meeting – it’s worthwhile to have a plan of what you want to say. It is all too easy to be sidetracked by other people’s points of view or led into unproductive discussions; a concrete list of expectations and goals can keep you on the right track. A useful method for strategic planning for effective communication, can be the use of SMART objectives: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-specific.

What would a successful outcome be for you? The more easily you can answer that question, the more effectively you can communicate yourself.

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