One of the most embarrassing professional development moments for me was a class on communication that I took as a trainee in TCS in 1999. The instructor video taped me – and went through the replay, pointing out everything that went wrong with my short presentation, in excruciating detail. He concluded with “If you don’t change all these, You will never make your point effectively, Vijay !”. For the next 5 years or so – every single one of performance appraisals had a line “Should work on improving communication skills” 🙂 .
While I don’t claim to be a master communicator by any stretch of imagination, I have largely succeeded in making my point most of the time. It took me a few years to get there, and hopefully I can save you some time by sharing what I learned. “How do I improve my communication skills?” is also one of the questions I get asked a lot – especially by people who grew up in India like I did, and then chose to live and work abroad.
Here is my simple 3 step approach to making my point.
- What-Why-How : I try to organize my talk track by defining the problem, explaining why this is the right problem to be solved , and my thoughts on next steps.
- Reinforce : Each step above needs some validation for your audience to buy in. This could come in many different forms – modulation of your voice, dramatic silent pauses, rhetoric, data, stories, pictures etc. This is the part where practice and experience makes you better.
- Repeat : We over-estimate how fast people understand what we are saying. It is more efficient to just repeat your key points. This is especially important when the talk is interactive – its very easy to misunderstand, or just lose track when there are objections, or a lengthy debate on some part of what you said, or just a mean remark. In such cases – paraphrasing is usually one of your best friends. It helps clarify the intent so that you can respond effectively, and has the side benefit that people generally like their own words repeated to them 🙂
Once you do this a few times, it will become second nature and you won’t need to explicitly think of the three steps. And – it works just as well outside your work too.
Couple of things to keep in mind
- Less is more – You don’t need to say a lot to make your points. Dr King’s highly impactful “I have a dream” speech only lasted 17 minutes. President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address only had 272 words. Bohemian Rhapsody only has 361 words in its lyrics.
- Simple words are all you need – Your primary intention is to be well understood. Even when addressing people who know all the fancy words, your ability to explain in simple language will usually help increase their confidence in you.
- Don’t worry about your accent – This took me a while to appreciate. As a non-native speaker of English, I constantly worry about my thick Indian accent standing the way of people understanding me. In my case, it was mostly the speed that was the actual problem – and I learned to slow down, and people understood me better. When people hear a foreign accent – they tend to listen with more attention, at least to begin with. They also forgive some mistakes in grammar.
Happy new year !