If you could choose just one ability to excel at to help you succeed in your career and life, what would that be?
Over the course of my career, I might have said leadership, judgment, confidence, or any number of equally credible choices. It depended on the day I was asked.
But with the benefit of hindsight, I now realize that the capability that makes the biggest difference to career advancement is this: being a great communicator.
What It Means to Be a Great Communicator
Being a great communicator means being able to read your audience, get your point across in a way that lands with others, and influences outcomes.
It doesn’t mean you have to be a charismatic orator, or speak in the Queen’s English. It means that you are able to connect with people, engage them and inspire them to take action. And this is at the core of being a great leader.
It’s funny that communicating is something we do every day, in person, in writing, over the phone, on social media. Yet, most of us are not even thinking about all the interactions we have – we’re just doing it. And most of the time without much training.
That means we’re leaving a lot on the table and there’s significant upside benefit if we can improve.
Why It’s Important to Your Career
In fact, communication is a fundamental, linchpin capability – one that has a knock-on effect on just about everything else we do whether that’s leading a team, working on strategy, handling a difficult conversation, negotiating a contract, or explaining our services to a client.
I like to think of being a great communicator as a “Super Food” that boosts your entire system by helping you:
- Build relationships and influence at every level – with clients, your boss, colleagues and juniors.
- Create buy-in for the projects and initiatives you lead.
- Negotiate effectively for what you want and need.
In short, communicating effectively is a crucial aspect of your success, whenever you’re working with or for other people. And that’s most of the time.
“It is simply impossible to become a great leader without being a great communicator.”
– Michael Myatt, bestselling author of Hacking Leadership
But as they say, just because you can talk doesn’t make you a good communicator.
So what does it take to be a great communicator?
3 Things You Can Do to Be a Great Communicator
In my experience, the difference between being good versus great comes down to whether or not you do the following three things: Notice, Practice, Invest.
These will help you become the very best communicator you can be, which in turn will make all the other things you do even more effective and high impact.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw
The first thing is to notice how you’re doing on the communication front. I’ve become more conscious in the moment of how effective I’m being in my communications, whether in writing, in person, on the phone and in personal as well as professional settings. I also do a periodic “check-in” on whether I’m improving.
One thing I can tell you is that I’m still far from perfect! Sometimes I do a better job than at other times, and unfortunately, there are also times when I completely blow it. But that’s okay because I’m creating a feedback loop for myself regularly so that I can learn and improve.
The other thing about noticing is that you don’t want to make yourself paranoid or self-conscious by overanalyzing the situation. Here are some useful questions to use to help you notice in a way that’s productive:
- What situations are harder vs. easier for you to be a great communicator?
- Think about who you’re with, the size of the audience, the topic, how much preparation you’ve done. For me, the toughest situation was always internal team meetings, where it felt like a giant chest-pounding exercise.
What you’re doing:
- Are you taking up your space, whether it’s sitting at a table or standing at a cocktail reception?
- And if you’re on the phone are you hunched over the phone?
- Are you breathing smoothly and feeling calm or is your chest pounding and your mouth dry?
- Are you making eye contact?
- Do you have nervous habits like adjusting your glasses frequently or twirling your hair?
What you’re saying:
- Are you using positive words or negative ones that come across as whining and complaining?
- Are you using powerful language or weak “apology language”?
- Are you using too much jargon (in which case others may not understand), or too little (in which case they may think you’re not a fellow insider)?
How you’re saying it:
- What’s the tone of your voice?
- Can they hear you clearly or do people strain to listen?
- Are you talking non-stop vs. pausing and listening?
- Are you talking too fast for your audience to absorb what you’re saying?
Your mindset and attention:
- Are you coming at this from your perspective, or thinking about what’s in it for your audience?
- Are you paying attention to how your message is landing with the audience?
- Are you listening to what the other person is saying?
As the saying goes, it’s about progress, not perfection. So don’t be afraid of noticing how you’re doing and stop worrying about whether you’re falling short. It’s all about making forward progress.
You can’t become great at communicating without practice. That’s what gets you comfortable with communicating when the stakes are high, and helps you to make the most of unexpected situations that come up in every day life.
And while it’s clear that you need to practice the set piece presentations – think TED Talks or addressing the executive committee – it’s equally important for being effective with informal interactions.
In fact, it can take more effort and thinking to be effective at the informal conversations. It’s the equivalent of needing a grounding in music theory before you can excel at jazz. Or practicing the art of improvisation so you can perform improv smoothly on stage.
And the key to useful practice is preparation and feedback. If you don’t prepare your message, then you’re just talking. And if you aren’t open to and seeking feedback, then you’re just talking to yourself.
Preparation doesn’t have to take a long time. It’s often just about gathering your thoughts and reminding yourself of your objectives. And when you prepare, your communications are more likely to be purposeful and positive.
As you do your practicing in various settings, you’ll benefit from getting feedback from people. In fact, be fearless about it. Others see and hear you anyway, so you may as well have the benefit of learning from it. You may even be pleasantly surprised!
When it comes to getting feedback, dig deeper beyond just the overall impression of whether your part of the communication was “great”, “good” or something else. Find out which parts were most effective and why. Ask what would make you more effective next time.
3. Invest in Yourself
After all, we’re not born great communicators. We all had to learn to read, to speak, to listen, and to make ourselves understood.
You can learn techniques from a variety of sources, such as books, videos, and watching great communicators at work.
But, I’ve found that the best way to go about it is to learn from professionals. It speeds up your learning and builds your confidence in a way that’s hard to replicate on your own.
Early on in my career, I really lucked out and got one-on-one presentation skills coaching that was meant for only the top people. A managing director had to drop out five minutes before his session was due to start, and the department head pointed to me and said, “You. Go!”
Well, this coaching made a huge difference in my career. I was better at presenting pitches to clients, speaking in those dreaded team meetings, and briefing senior management on my business. It helped polish my brand and gave me a greater ability to influence others and deliver results.
But investing in yourself is not a “once and done” event. The thing about communicating is that you can always be better. And as you progress in your career, the bar just gets higher: there’s more at stake, there’s greater complexity and you need to be more nuanced.
That’s why people at the top of their fields tend to increase their investment in coaching and training as they move up. You can be sure that CEOs and heads of state are continuing to invest in this skill.
How I'm Becoming a Great Communicator
I’ve been investing as well – I’m in Victoria Labalme’s Rock the Room® program, which includes the Rock the Room® online learning course, a private community of support, and the Rock the Room® Live event.
Victoria is one of the very best at helping you transform an ordinary communication into an unforgettable experience your prospects, customers and clients will never forget. That’s why I’ve chosen to learn from her.
She coaches top executives and teams at Microsoft, Starbucks, PayPal, IBM, McAfee/Intel, New York Life Insurance, Oracle, and dozens more, as well as leading entrepreneurs, NY Times Best Selling Authors, guests on Oprah, and experts developing their keynotes, high stakes pitches or TED Talks.
What her Rock the Room® program has done for me already is:
- Cut my prep time in half (which I love because time is the only thing we can’t make more of)
- Made me more confident about my message and how to convey it
- Helped me to feel more natural and authentic onstage and on video
And that’s even before next month’s live event in Los Angeles where Victoria will be helping me and the other attendees hone our ability to be a great communicator!
If you want to be a great communicator, then Victoria’s Rock the Room® program has my highest endorsement (most large companies will reimburse you; ask your HR team).
By the way, if you’re also going to the Rock the Room® Live event, please look me up or send me an email. I’d love to meet you there!
What Will You Do?
So, to have the success you want in your career and to be the kind of leader you are capable of being,
- Take some time to notice how you communicate,
- Practice your craft purposefully, and
- Invest in yourself.
Being a great communicator will pay off tremendously when it comes to your career advancement and success in all areas of life.
What will you do to become a better communicator? Leave a comment and let me know.
And if you’re going to Rock the Room® Live on March 3-5th in LA, come say hello!