Updated on 07.15.08

The One Skill That Will Earn You Money, No Matter What You Do

Trent Hamm

communication all sorted by dhutchman on Flickr!Communication.

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.

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  1. Very well said.

    Communication is critical for interaction and interaction is everywhere. I look forward to pushing myself in this area.

  2. H-Bomb says:

    I used to always be the first person who introduced myself to people. I need to get back into this habit. I remeber people always remarking on how they would always remember me because I stood out by befriending them before anyone else. I think working in a cubicle all day and not being able to speak to people has really taken its toll on my social abilities. :)

  3. Shanel Yang says:

    Fantastic post, Trent! All excellent points! I’d like to add that for folks who want similar great advice, Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People is, in my opinion, the great-granddaddy of self-help books on this subject. Don’t let the name fool you! Too many people get confused by the title and think this is some kind of book about how to manipulate people — it’s not! It’s actually all about how to communicate effectively — giving such great tips as there’s no point in arguing with anybody or correcting anyone. It’s far better to be agreeable if you want to be gracious. Of course, there’s a time and place for argument (debates, etc.), but this book is about how to get along with everyone as smoothly as possible. I wrote a 12-part summary of Carnegie’s entire book, full of practical advice on how to apply his tips, at http://shanelyang.com/2007/10/09/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people/

  4. Communication is an area where many people struggle. Unfortunately, it is common that some of the most talented and intelligent people in the world are “hamstrung” when it comes to communicating with others.
    I’m sure that we have all noticed that it isn’t always the most intelligent guy in your graduating class that is now wealthy…but more likely the one with the best communication skills (coupled with at least average intelligence).

  5. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “I think working in a cubicle all day and not being able to speak to people has really taken its toll on my social abilities. :)”

    It did for me, too. That’s a topic I want to address in the future.

  6. "Mo" Money says:

    Good post. I like the list and will implement it into my daily life as much as possible.

  7. !wanda says:

    Good post, but please don’t be creepy on the bus. In my experience, enough of people on the bus who want to talk to you are crazy, so I am wary of people who initiate conversation there.

  8. Anya says:

    Building off of that last comment, Trent, I’m thinking that a lot of people hold off on talking to strangers, not just out of shyness, but out of fear of annoying or harassing people. (This depends on the setting, of course; a cafeteria at a conference might be a more welcoming environment for chat with a stranger than a crowded subway car.) But I’m wondering, do you have a rule of thumb about where to draw the line between opening up a positive communication channel with a stranger, and intruding on that stranger’s privacy?

  9. luvleftovers says:

    “You’re standing at the bus stop”

    Good post, but please don’t be creepy on the bus. In my experience, enough of people on the bus who want to talk to you are crazy, so I am wary of people who initiate conversation there.

    !wanda @ 9:06 am July 15th, 2008 (comment #7)

    Right, You should be very careful of this in New York! That’t why I got an iPod!!!

  10. Rob says:

    That was one of your best posts. Good job.

  11. rob says:

    One of your best posts. Good job.

  12. Jody says:

    Well said and communication is so important. I just got back from a store whose sale didn’t start until Thursday. The item I wanted was part of that sale. When talking with an associate we had a good conversation and he ended up walking me to the register and giving me the sale price 2 days early.

  13. expat says:

    I must agree, great post. Not only do these points apply in public situations, but work well in personal relationships as well. I’ve found that when I apply some of these suggestions in my interactions with my family, we communicate more honestly, openly & without hostility. It definitely makes for a more rewarding life.

  14. Carey says:

    Great post!

    Maybe thats what I should be blogging about!

    Its unique and original and very personal – my work!


  15. Thomas says:

    Yet another great article – I really enjoy reading pieces like this one!
    And I personally look forward to an article on working alone in a cubicle or at home a lot and how (1) to turn that into an advantage and (2) realize the opportunities it gives in order to take advantage of them.
    Thank you!

  16. Trent,

    As a regular reader (and fan) of your blog, I was very pleasantly surprised to see your complimentary mention of my blog in this post. I’m delighted to see it mentioned in the context of sharing, which has always been my goal in blogging.

    There is much wisdom in your post today and it reminds why your blog has long been in my newsreader.


  17. Mark Sutton says:

    One avenue often overlooked to practicing communication skills is to join a Toastmasters club. It is a great program to enhance your skills whether you are a seasoned speaker or someone who is terrified when in front of a crowd. http://www.toastmasters.org to find a club near you.

  18. Heidi says:

    Amen! I have a BA in Communications – in college it seemed like a ‘fluff’ degree, but it has served me very well, especially in my current role as a strategist trying to guide conversations between business units regarding our complex financial solutions. Being able to speak to an audience in terms that they understand and digest is a priceless skill and can cover a host of other inadequacies.

    I’ll second expat’s comments about personal relationships. As my fiancé and I go through pre-marital counseling, I’m amazing at what I’m learning about him and us. I thought that in the five years we’ve been together that we’d been pretty good about open communication, but there is always room for improvement.

  19. andrej says:

    Yes, an excellent article, and something I need to take to heart. Thank you for harping on this topic, repetition is great for making me actually do something about it. :)

    Two thoughts on the subject.

    First, I think our (North American) school systems completely fail to teach us how to communicate. In many European countries, students regularly have to answer verbally before the entire class, at all levels of school, and in some cases, you can’t even do a written exam until you’ve passed the oral exam.

    This really forces you to a) know the material; b) know how to express yourself succinctly and organize your thoughts; c) think on your feet; and d) get over your shyness and any fear of speaking.

    Because of this lack, so many of us North Americans finish the entire school system semi-literate and unable to communicate. Then the more ambitious join Toastmasters for remedial training. I think Toastmasters, at least at the beginning, is the equivalent of those first year university courses in basic English grammar and spelling, or in high school math.

    My other thought: be careful when applying Dale Carnegie’s advice about people’s names. A lot of people — especially the NLP crowd — are fond of using people’s names to the point of engendering hostility. Greeting someone with their name is effective. Saying their name once every sentence will piss them off.

  20. liv says:

    Makes a lot of sense :)

  21. Erica says:

    I agree with this post completely. I majored in English in college and have always prided myself on my writing abilities. People used to ask, “What do you plan to do with your degree – teach?” I tried to explain to them that good communication skills are the base for ANY career. (And today, I am a management consultant where my communication skills are critical to my successs>)

  22. Jules says:

    And what if you’re shy-bordering-on-social-anxiety?

    Actually, I can’t even say it’s a social-anxiety issue. I just find conversations impossible to bear after a while–I’m never sure what’s appropriate to ask and what’s not, whether I’m getting my point across, and I don’t empathize well–that is to say, I do empathize, but for some reason the emotive quality of my tone is distinctly lacking. I’ve failed every single clinical-skills assessment from my first two years of medical school (major reason why I quit). There’s at least three time zones between my mind and my mouth. I can’t multitask–meaning that reviewing things that the person’s said can’t be done while I’m listening to them. And I have something akin to ADD when it comes to conversations–you’ll be talking about the Kentucky Derby and I’ll be thinking, “Horses–unicorns–mythical figures–mermaids” and the next question out of my mouth will be whether you’ve seen the newest Little Mermaid video.

    In other words: I’m a woman who is simply awful at having conversations, to the point where my former boss suspected I had Asperger’s Syndrome (I can’t say I blame her). So most of my “conversation” is done through chats/discussions like these.

  23. imelda says:

    Ditto to what Jules said. I’m a writer but god knows that whenever I open my mouth to talk, crap comes out. I suffer not from shyness but rather a highly exaggerated self-consciousness. I agree with what Trent posted here, that one’s people skills are more important in the workplace than almost anything else. And yet no matter how often I force myself to chat with coworkers or attend parties that make me miserable, I never seem to improve.

    I’ve read Dale Carnegie and others like him, but conventional advice seems targeted more to jerks who tend to talk nonstop and be critical others while praising themselves. I can listen, I’m an excellent listener (maybe that’s why I’m a decent writer), but when it comes to conversation, I’m a mess. Is there no hope for me?

  24. Andy says:

    I liked your post about cheese better. God I love cheese.

  25. Laura says:

    Asking questions and listening attentively can help you out so much. So many people have talents and skills that they are willing to share, if you ask them.

  26. chb says:

    to jules, imelda, and others like them:

    I think I live with what you describe – but I can’t believe how much I’ve improved the past few years. I made a conscious decision in college to force myself to be more social, since I’m a naturally shy, introverted, self-conscious person with low self-esteem. In conversations, I have to concentrate so hard on exactly what the other person is saying, which includes using my facial expressions, like smiling and nodding a lot. I usually try to pick one thing they have said to respond to, so I don’t get overwhelmed with all the info they’re sharing. And I ask a lot of questions so I’m not the one doing the majority of the talking! I have to force my hands to stay by my side or clasped “casually” in front of me because my strong instinct is to cross them at my chest, which is seen as defensive. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I think of the extroverts I know and respect and try to think what they would do in a situation, so I can try to emulate them. These are just a few examples of what runs thru my head in social situations…

    Every time I force myself to be “social,” I have mixed feelings – I’m so glad I went thru with the event, but I usually feel bad about any weird or embarrassing moments I remember. But I hope that as long as I keep practicing, it’ll stop being such a big deal. And I know that even though I feel embarrassed, I can still live thru it.

    Trent’s article is great but it really is so easy to say and SO hard to do. But I think there are more of us out there than we think, since the loud, extroverted people always stand out! So people like us just have to seek each other out and SOMEone has to make the first move!

  27. rhymeswithlibrarian says:

    re: “I even go so far as to tell people that I see on the street that they look beautiful today.”

    Since you use the word beautiful, I’m guessing that you’re referring to women. Like trying to strike up conversations on the bus, this is another area to be careful in – you can easily come off as creepy. Maybe your motives are innocent, but the woman you’re addressing doesn’t know that.

    Personally, when I’m walking down the street, the last thing I want to hear is some strange man’s opinion on my appearance.


    Please don’t assume that women

  28. Lauren says:

    One helpful thing that I’ve noticed: (most) people loooove to talk about themselves. Especially if you’re shy, this is a good way to start up a conversation (even if it’s something like “oh that’s a nice X, where’d you get it?)

  29. Michael says:

    A socially successful friend of mine confirmed a few years ago that successful conversing simply requires an embarrassing crash course. For those who don’t want to ruin relationships, he recommends they take a class or something else done with entirely unfamiliar people.

  30. Travis says:

    This blog entry should at least make reference to Dale Carnegie, who wrote about many of these ideas 60 or 70 years ago. His books are outstanding.

  31. For the commenters who mention social anxiety and shyness, then the idea to give compliments can be a perfect place to start. As long as you’re sincere, you can pretty much count on getting a good reaction with a compliment.

    Then you can springboard that success and any confidence you’ve grown into trying some of the other suggestions.

  32. TParkerson says:

    Great post Trent!

    To all of you that struggle with shynees or fear of opening up, I would suggest a couple of things. First, it does take some practice and you may fall flat the first few times. But it is just as likely that your audience is as nervous as you and will be grateful that you took the first step. With each time you “go out on the limb”, it gets easier and easier. Start small…compliment someone’s appearance (you can do it in a non-creapy way!), remark on the weather, etc. I have found that when I say something like “I have seen you here before and have always thought you had a nice smile”, it puts people at ease.

    As you become a little more adept at starting off, you can try humor. Avoid sexist, racist or otherwise offensive humor and be careful with sarcasm, especially if your audience is unknown. I have found that a little self-deprecating humor
    will usually level the playing field and open a door.

    You might also look to a friend who is naturally outgoing to give you some pointers. If you don’t currently have someone like that in your circle, see if you don’t notice someone at work, at church, even at the local market or restaurant. (Wait staff and bartenders are the best conversationalists; they have to be since their livliehood can be directly affected!)

    And lastly, remember my motto ” they can’t kill me, eat me or take away my birthday!” You will flop sometimes; out of the millions of folks on this great planet of ours, you cannot possibly imagine that everyone will like you. Don’t work for those impossible odds…just be yourself and let the chemistry do the rest. Love and friendship is about 80% inspiration, 10% perspiration and 10% MAGIC…trust the magic to happen!!

    Hope you have a blessed day making new friends…

  33. Randy says:

    Don’t forget Toastmasters! Started in 1924, it’s the world’s largest nonprofit educational organization with 250,000+ members in 90 countries. Toastmasters will allow you to build your communication and leadership skills at your own pace in a safe, comfortable environment.

    To learn more, locate a nearby club, or start a club at your company, see http://www.toastmasters.org. It worked for me!

  34. Ryan McLean says:

    This is SOOOO true.
    I am a christian and I run a small group (youth aged) and communication is everything.
    Also I run a financial wealth website http://www.smarterwealth.com and being able to communicate to my audience is one of the key factors to growing this online business

  35. Chiara says:

    Great post overall, but I have to chime in with rhymeswithlibrarian on encouraging people to compliment strangers. It might be totally fine in Trent’s area and situations, but as a longtime big-city-downtown-worker female, I say leave it alone. I experienced a lot of comments from strangers on the street, especially when I was young and just starting out and didn’t know how to handle it. There were times when it escalated into uncomfortable/scary territory.

    Anyone who is considering doing this, please keep in mind that compliments from strangers might be seen by a woman as a tactic to start unwanted attention/intrusions on her personal space – regardless of your good intentions (she doesn’t *know* you, so does not know your intentions)!

    Seriously, I advise sticking with with the time-honored polite smile & nod, if anything, unless you become familiar over time by sharing a bus-stop, building, elevator or whatever.

  36. ArcAngelMD says:

    This is a fantastic post. It is amazing what good networking skills can bring you. When I left graduate school I obtained a job that was not financially great. I was offered a job a couple of years later that had a significant pay increase (lets say 33% but required almost a 200% increase in workload). I took the job because it was a great opportunity to learn in my field and more imporantatly than I knew, required me to attend trade conferences in my field, to network with my peers on a daily basis, and to make presentations several times a week. Well I met virtually all of the who’s who in my field and within 3 years that turned into a job that was maybe 33% as much work at over 200% what I was earning before!

  37. Kristen says:


    This entry is great. In work situations, most times it’s all about communication, though I feel some people talk more than they do the actual work.

    Still a reminder that we should not be stuck with just doing the work, but communicate to people more, especially those of us who work on computers all the time.

  38. imelda says:

    I just wanted to comment again to say thanks to everyone for their advice, and for being kind! There are some really good and new ideas that I will try to take into consideration.

  39. Francine says:

    Thank you for the link to Seth’s Blog.

  40. Lorie says:

    I’ll ‘third’ the Toastmasters recommendation. It’s a great organization, and will teach you not only how to speak to people, but also how to organize and run various kinds of meetings and be a real leader. It’s not terribly expensive, and it is a lot of fun. Shy people are especially welcome, because it’s fun to watch them blossom as their confidence grows.

  41. Liz says:

    I’m going to ‘fourth’ the Toastmasters suggestion. I’ve been a member for a couple years and I can attest to its usefulness in enabling you to become comfortable speaking in front of a group. At each meeting, there is a fun little segment called Table Topics. You are given a question by a moderator, sometimes part of a theme, and you are asked to speak off the top of your head about it for two minutes. I came to enjoy not only answering the questions but also leading it, and I found there was nothing better to help me organize my thoughts and speak succinctly.

  42. sara says:

    The best way to find conferences and rate the conferences you have attended is at http://www.conferencerater.com. This site can help you save time and money by giving you an unbiased perspective of events. Rate and find your next conference at conferencerater.com.

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