There is a popular, if fanciful, perception that communication between humans was born when one stereotypical caveman, clad in animal skin and with bed hair, grunted in a certain way and another caveman understood the meaning of that grunt. And from that highly unlikely origin, the following millennia brought us cave paintings, hieroglyphics, the printing press, the town crier, sign language, semaphore, the penny post, Morse code, the pony express, the telephone, radio, cinema, the fax, television, email, the Internet and the text message. We have a lot to thank those cavemen for.
Good communication skills are an increasingly common criterion in job specifications of today. This is hardly surprising given the ever-expanding range of communication media in use within modern businesses. Before the technology boom at the back end of the last century, traditional communications amounted to little more than the letter, the telephone call and the face-to-face meeting, but modern science has given us such innovations as email, the mobile phone and online conferencing. To function well in this world of wizardry, therefore, your range of communication skills should stretch some way beyond being adept at ‘txting yr m8s’.
Communication in the workplace is a broad subject on which there are whole books available so this article only scratches the surface. I hope, though, that it encourages you to look further into increasing the quality of your own communication skills, as this is one of the main attributes sought by employers today. So let us take a look at some of the factors that go towards developing good communication skills.
Imagine that you are an employer interviewing a prospective employee for a job that requires a high level of communication. The eager candidate reels off his talents: an excellent telephone manner, very articulate, a good standard of written English, a clear voice etc. On the face of it he fits the bill, but if we look closer we see that he is only half way there. The skills he has mentioned are all important factors in being a good communicator, but they only refer to what he can say, and not to how good a listener he is. You should always remember that communication, by its very nature, is a two-way street and it is only effective if the sender and the recipient take the same meaning from the information conveyed.
To minimise misunderstandings, therefore, you should always be clear and concise in what you say, avoiding waffle, jargon and, in particular, words or phrases that can lead to ambiguity. There are many amusing old chestnuts around to illustrate ambiguous writing, but the following two will serve to demonstrate the type of sentence structure you should avoid:
“The girl rode on a donkey wearing flip flops.”
“The politician discussed food prices and the high cost of living with several women.”
Writing that is open to misunderstanding such as these examples (called ‘misplaced modifiers’, to give them their correct title) does little to project you as a good communicator, and so you should check everything you write for clarity.
This is all very well, but what about oral communication? You cannot proof read and re-write your words during a telephone conversation or a face-to-face meeting.
The key word in oral communication is confidence, something that can only be gained by having a reasonably in-depth knowledge of the subject under discussion. Whereas written messages can often be researched and composed at the writer’s leisure, no such comfort zone exists in the here and now world of oral communication, where such glitches as pauses, stumbling over words or a croaky dry throat can betray the speaker as being out of his or her depth.
All of which goes to show that a lack of oral skills is far easier to spot than those in written communications, so more thorough preparation is called for. Neglecting to brush up on the subject about to be discussed can expose the speaker as not having the required confidence in the subject to communicate effectively on it. And on being pressed further for an answer they may, by way of reply, be able to offer no more than a grunt.
And the world of communication has turned full circle.