No matter what you do in life, communication will earn you money.
You’re a person working in a cubicle on hard problems. The ability to present your work to the boss during performance reviews will make or break you. The ability to present your work to coworkers will help your project go better. The ability to talk to peers at conferences will open up new connections and possibly new career paths for you.
You’re a person who’s involved with artistic work. Your ability to sell your work relies on your ability to communicate. In many cases, your work itself relies on an ability to communicate – art speaks, does it not?
You work at a minimum wage job at a burger joint. Good communication skills get you to the front counter, where the work is typically more varied and more interesting and you have the opportunity to show off customer relations skills to the manager, who will begin to value you as a key employee, leading to potential raises and better scheduling.
You’re standing at the bus stop. Other people are waiting around, mostly just fidgeting. Keeping quiet will earn you nothing. Starting a conversation with the guy in the business suit holding a copy of one of your favorite books might start a valuable friendship.
Here are ten things you can do immediately to improve that skill.
Introduce yourself to others as often as is reasonably possible. If you’re in a situation where you’re in close public quarters with others that you do not know (like a meeting room, a party, or a dinner table), introduce yourself to them, and initiate some conversation. Likely, if you’re sitting there quiet and nervous, they’re feeling the exact same way. Even in the worst case scenario – the conversation doesn’t go well – at the very least, you got some conversational practice out of the deal.
Make a concerted effort to remember names well enough that you can call them by name later. Always ask for people’s names and try very hard to remember them. At the end of the conversation, get a business card from them and, later, jot what you can remember about them down on the back of the card – the occasion in which you met, any key information that stands out, etc. If you can’t get a business card, jot their name down in a notebook with similar information. This will help you remember. Then, if you think you might be meeting that person again, review the information a bit before you go. This will help you immediately have an impact on them the next time you meet.
Take every opportunity you can get to speak in front of a crowd and give presentations. If you’ve got an opportunity to speak in public, always take it. Not only does this force you to know how to organize your thoughts and communicate them to others, it provides countless opportunities to open up interactions with people who share your interests and concerns.
Put extra care into explaining your work to others. Whenever you have a chance to explain your work to others, put in plenty of care so that they’re able to understand it without their eyes glossing over. Comment your code. Think of everyday analogies for what you’re doing and use them. Try as hard as you can to avoid technical talk unless the situation specifically calls for it. In short, the better you can explain what you’re doing to a layman, the better you’ll appear not only to upper management, but to people in future interview situations.
Share what you know about your work as widely as possible.
It’s always worthwhile to start a blog covering your professional area. Not only does it give you an opportunity to sort through your thoughts and concepts, it also allows you to share your ideas with a wide world. Plus, doing it regularly simply makes you a better communicator. Here are five great examples of strong professional blogs:
Joel on Software is written by Joel Spolsky, a software developer
Seth’s Blog is written by Seth Godin, a marketing consultant
Jeffrey Zeldman Presents is written by Jeffrey Zeldman, a web developer
DennisKennedy.blog is written by Dennis Kennedy, a lawyer
Doctor David’s Blog is written by Dr. Davide Loeb, a pediatric oncologist
Compliment others sincerely. If someone does something well, compliment them, and do it sincerely. Most people go through the drudgery of their workday and their daily life without realizing that people sincerely appreciate their efforts. Thank people for the effort they put out for you, from the company president all the way down to the janitorial staff. Thank the administrative assistant who helped you get your paperwork filed. Compliment the person at the beauty salon who just got an excellent new hair style. I even go so far as to tell people that I see on the street that they look beautiful today or that they’re wearing great clothes (“I love that jacket!”). Even if it gets you nothing more than a thank you, you’d be shocked how often such things come back around in the long run.
Participate in social groups where you have a high likelihood of meeting new people. Find a group or two that match your interests or beliefs (faith, community service, books, etc.) and get involved. Go to those meetings and make an effort to meet new people there. Take leadership roles.
Attend conferences and conventions with the goal of meeting people. Don’t attend conferences in order to listen to the talks. Attend conferences to meet people. As soon as you’ve decided to go to a conference, see if you can get involved in the organization a bit. Help run a session, or be a “substitute” speaker if one is needed. During the rest of the meeting, make an effort to meet people who share your specific interests and work on building the beginning of friendships with them. If you’re eating alone at a conference, you’re wasting that conference.
When people talk, listen and ask occasional questions. Most people prefer to talk about themselves and their own interests much more than listening. If you’re having a one-on-one conversation, most people tend to feel best about it when they’ve done about 60-65% of the talking. That means that you’ll almost always make for a better conversationalist if you shoot for 35-40% of the talking. The best way to do that is to just listen carefully to what the other person is saying. Watch them – don’t let your eyes wander. Ask an occasional question or two. This doesn’t mean you should be silent, but it does mean you should let the other person do the brunt of the talking.
Talk about your own mistakes before ever criticizing others. If you’re ever in a position to criticize others, always be up front with your own mistakes, foibles, and flaws. You will never come off well if you try to create an air of perfection around yourself while criticizing others. It’s never a bad idea to lead with an anecdote about a mistake you’ve made in the past, even in interview situations (of course, there you’ll want to continue by explaining how you fixed the mistake, if reasonable). Trying to come off as perfect makes you seem less human and thus criticism from you seems much less palatable. Show some flaws – you’ll come off better in the end.