You communicate every day, right? You write emails, you talk to colleagues, you tell your friends or significant other about your day.
Yet you're frustrated that others don’t always understand you. To you, what you say seems clear, but somehow others miss your critical points.
You’d love to avoid this kind of confusion and conflict in the future.
Good news. It’s absolutely possible. You can learn to improve your communication skills.
You can master it, nail it, so there’s no doubt you got your message across.
And it matters. Why?
Because communication is key to success in business and personal relationships.
In both these areas of your life, you’re passing on critical information to others.
You’re trying to share something of yourself. You’re trying to make yourself understood. You’re trying to reach mutual understanding.
If you get it wrong, the effects are disastrous.
But don’t despair.
Improving your communication is easy to do. There are a few simple steps you can take that will make your message clearer.
If you practice these techniques, you’ll soon be making yourself understood.
People will get what you mean. They’ll listen to what you say and act on your advice.
Before we look at the steps though, let's see why communication matters.
Why Communication is The Ultimate Key to Success
Have you ever played Chinese whispers?
It’s a game where a message passes from one person to another down a line. By the time it reaches the last person, the content has changed beyond recognition.
If you’re not careful, this could be happening with your messages too. The result is misunderstanding, error and frustration.
Be warned: this happens more often than you might think.
Take a moment to think about what’s involved in communication. You try to convey your thoughts, intentions and objectives through spoken or written language.
During a conversation, you take images and conceptions in your mind and translate them into words. You hope that your listener will understand what you mean. You expect the information you use to relate to similar images and conceptions in their mind.
Yet this might not be the case.
Let’s take a tree, for example. When you say the word “tree”, you presume the listener understands what you mean. You picture an object that has a trunk and leaves. Yet your listener could have grown up in a place without trees. Their idea of a tree could be a cactus.
The image conveyed to them by the word ‘tree’ is different from the image you have.
Communication is not working in this instance. Sender and receiver do not understand the same information.
It’s a simple example that illustrates a key point about how communication can go wrong.
And go wrong, it can.
In 1999 NASA lost an estimated $125 million Mars orbiter due to a communication error.
Post-crash reports show that a subcontracted engineering team used English units of measurement – inches and miles - while NASA’s team used the metric system – cm and meters.
Everyone thought they knew what the numbers 5, 10 and 20 meant. In fact, for different teams, they indicated different measurements.
The moral of this story?
Communication is key. The costs of getting it wrong are high. Let’s get this straight: if you want to succeed, you need to get better at this fundamental skill.
How to Communicate Like a Pro
Getting better at communication is a matter of practising a few simple steps.
Practice these for a few minutes a day, and you’ll soon be a much better communicator.
Take time to master one technique and then move on to the next. Ensure you’re comfortable with each step and remember practice makes perfect.
1. Shut Your Big Mouth
Communication is a two-way process. To check someone has understood you, you need to stop, look and listen. Check your listener's body language, eye contact and facial expressions. Do they look like they have followed?
Make sure there’s no sign of puzzlement on their face. See if they’re avoiding eye contact. If they are it could mean they’re not following what you say.
Also, don’t cut them off when they’re responding.
Give them your full attention and allow them to complete their sentences. Let them express what they want to say. Be patient. Your time to respond will come.
2. Make Your Message Magnificent
Know why you’re communicating and to whom you’re communicating. What’s the point you're trying to get across and how is the listener going to receive your message?
If you speak with clear intent, then it will be easier to grasp what you mean. If you’re on the same level as your audience, you’ll be able to pitch your message in a way that they’ll understand.
No point explaining the nuances of Roman law to a bunch of school kids.
Consider any barriers you may encounter. What perspectives might someone from a different age, gender or career background have? What assumptions about you might they make?
How would a presentation on Martin Luther King, for example, vary depending on who the audience was? Would it be the same talk if the listeners were black or white, young or old?
3. Cut All the Fluff
Keep your communication simple, direct and to the point. Fewer words are better. Focus on the purpose of your message. Move the conversation forward. Don’t bog it down in a babble of unnecessary words.
There are all sorts of stuff you can trim.
You can trim words that aren’t necessary to convey your message’s essence. You can get to the point quickly without “beating around the bush”. If you’re giving a presentation you can cut slides and sections that aren’t strictly relevant to your speech.
Don’t tell people what they already know or don’t need to know, for example.
4. Get a Great Body
Body language is more important than your words. It conveys much more information to others than you think.
Studies show that around 70% of the impression you make during a presentation is in your body language, 20% is your voice; only 10% is the words you say.
If you’re in a conversation with someone stand with your arms at your side. If you cross your arms or hunch your shoulders, it suggests you’re closed, disinterested and unwilling to engage.
When you keep your arms relaxed and at your side, it suggests you’re approachable and cooperative. Never lean back or look away while someone is talking to you. Instead, lean in and show that you’re interested and engaged.
5. Show Others Your Love
You inspire trust and confidence when you make eye contact. When it’s their turn to talk, make sure you don’t avoid their gaze either.
If you’re talking to a group, make sure to look everyone in the eye one at a time. Allow your gaze to linger before moving on.
Eye contact is also essential when you’re giving a presentation to thousands. Although you can’t look everyone in the eye, you can make sure your eyes sweep across the audience. Doing so makes everyone feel spoken to.
Don’t miss out on any sections or the audience or focus too much on one spot. If you do, it makes you look nervous.
6. Get Your Singing Voice On
The tone of your voice is as important as what you say. Begin by noticing the rise and fall of your voice as you speak. Make sure you talk in a friendly voice - one that is soft and appropriate for the type of conversation. You don’t need to yell for others to understand. Nor do you need to be curt and abrupt. Another bad habit is mumbling.
If you’re not articulating every syllable, the chances of misunderstanding increase. Here's a suggestion: If you struggle with mumbling, practice tongue twisters for a while. “She sells seashells on the seashore” is a great one. “Jack the jailbird jacked a jeep,” is another.
What tongue twisters do you know?
7. Become a Studio Artist
Practice makes perfect, they say. If you’re struggling to speak clearly, you can take several small steps. You can practice at home or in front of your friends. Record yourself and play it back. Pay close attention to the speed, loudness and pitch of your voice. Make improvements with each recording.
Want more? You could also join a local communication group. Toastmasters, for example, is an international organization where people get together to help each other improve their communication skills, most often by giving presentations.
Finally, don’t forget about improving your vocabulary and grammar, even more so if you’re not a native speaker. Lots of textbooks or online tools can help improve your grammar. Regular use of a thesaurus will help you expand your vocabulary.
8. Forget About Yourself
Be curious about others and make an effort to understand them. It’s not all about you. Put your assumptions aside and listen to what others are saying. Understand what their needs and requests are. What are they asking you to do? What’s their perspective? Can you understand why they’re making this demand?
When a person feels like you’ve heard them, they tend to open up and feel secure in their conversation. Showing you've listened to what they've said can lead to a trusting relationship. Moreover, the ability to recognise, understand and appreciate the way others’ feel is crucial to managing change, resolving conflict, and making tough decisions.
9. Ask For The Earth
Communicate what you need without hesitation. As long as your requests are reasonable, don’t be afraid to express them. Make sure you don’t communicate with too much emotion. If you do, you risk others seeing you as weak or aggressive.
If you feel someone is ignoring your requests, then find the time and place to assert yourself. Use a problem-solving approach to conflicts. Don’t back down, but try to understand the other person’s perspective and brainstorm solutions.
10. Pretend Everyone is Five Years Old
One of the most significant barriers to communication is the ‘curse of knowledge.’ The curse of knowledge comes up after you’ve learnt something, and you find it difficult to remember what it’s like to not know it.
The curse of knowledge strikes even when you recognise that you're a specialist and that your audience doesn’t have the same level of expertise as you do. It strikes even when you try to simplify what you say. It's hard to overcome because you rarely simplify enough.
It may sound strange but without being condescending to your audience, treat them like they’re five years old. Take time to look at your topic from their perspective. Are you sure they’re as familiar with the concepts, jargon and acronyms as you think they are?
Your audience will thank you for your effort.
Start Influencing the World
Communication is key to business, relationships and general life success. You need excellent communication skills to ensure that your partner, boss, colleagues and friends all understand and respect your needs.
Take the time to go through these steps and pick the ones you need to improve. Put aside a little time each day to go over them.
Check your improvement. Perhaps ask a friend if they’ll give you feedback. Or makes notes on the skills you think you’ve enhanced.
Then move on to another step.
Outstanding communication takes a little practice, but it’s not too difficult.
You’ve been communicating all your life, and for the most part, others have understood you. Now it’s time to tweak your skills. To get clear about what you want to say and how to say it.
Communication is key to your relationships, career and social life. When you learn to communicate better you’re more likely to get the outcomes you desire whether it’s at home, work or when with friends.
Imagine conveying what you want in a way that gets others to listen, understand and respond. Imagine giving presentations that receive rounds of engaged applause.
Now you know how to get there.
Step by step.
It’s time for some fantastic conversations, starting now with your comment below.