Effective strategies to improve your communication skills

April 7, 2021 - 17 min read
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What is effective communication?

How to keep audiences engaged when you speak

How to be a better listener

How to improve understanding and give understandable messages

How to improve face-to-face communication:

How to improve online communication:

5 extra tips to sharpen your communication skills:

Perhaps the most common mistake in communication is the tendency to do too much. We want others to understand, approve and sign off, ideally without pushback or lengthy discussion. But as we aim to influence based on the strength of our data, we feel stumped when our passion isn’t shared.

The good news is that communication can be easier than you imagine, provided that you are mindful of a few basic principles.

What is effective communication?

Effective communication involves a connection with others. It is a dance with a partner that moves, at times, in ways we did not predict. This means the most powerful skill you can leverage is being in sync with your audience, understanding and speaking to its needs, and then responding to real-time feedback. It means having the conversation that your audience wants to have.

Below is a list of actionable behaviors in speaking and listening that will help you sync as you communicate.

How to keep audiences engaged when you speak

Be relevant

As we are flooded with information, many audiences will not be impressed by data. In fact, the desire to cover all bases or anticipate all possible questions is a common reason for wordiness.

To keep listeners engaged, especially in virtual meetings, you should carefully curate content for relevance. Ask yourself: How does this information affect my audience? How may it help them with their work? Is this level of detail helpful to understand my main message?

If you have no clear answers to these questions, consider cutting the content.

Be concise

A hallmark of executive presence, concision is the ability to express your ideas in as few words as possible. Listeners appreciate this, as it shows your preparation and respect for your listeners’ time. In addition, concision signals confidence: the confidence to do less, to say something once, and trust that it lands.

Especially in virtual meetings, where the feedback loop can be flat, many speakers struggle with being concise. They may repeat themselves “just to make sure” or use more examples to make a point clear. But this kind of “more” can often be less, as audiences disengage, having gotten the point the first time.

Concision is a leap of faith. The faith in your own preparation and that your delivery is clear. In virtual meetings with cameras turned off, it becomes harder to keep this faith. For your own self-care as a speaker, you may want to ask your audience to be fully present and turn cameras on — and then reward them with your confident delivery.

Leave spaces for the audience to fill

One way to slow yourself down and check in with audiences is to pause after making a point. Not just a second to catch your breath, but an actual space for silence. Both virtual and in-person, it leaves an opening for your listeners to fill, providing you with real-time feedback as to what they need next. How granular do they want you to get? Do they actually have the questions you were going to answer? Or are they taking your ideas in a whole new direction?

We often feel wary about silence, as if it means that something is wrong. But things happen in silence, and you may be surprised what your listeners offer when given the chance to jump in. However they fill the space, you may get valuable hints as to how to sync and proceed. And that is when communication becomes dancing.

Treat pushback as openings, not obstacles

You may believe that by making a compelling case, you should be rewarded with instant buy-in. Which of course, almost never happens. As your proposals are challenged you get frustrated, perhaps even defensive, as you try to explain why you are right. Soon lines are drawn and both sides double down, and you find yourself stuck in a rut.

To avoid such a shutdown of your ideas, you may want to rethink how you experience pushback. Most new ideas aren’t embraced the way they are initially proposed, and your audience may not need you to have ready-made answers to all their questions. Try to view your pitch as an opening volley, and the pushback as guidance to have the talk that you need to have. Instead of reflexive defense, ask follow-questions to validate and explore the concern.

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How to be a better listener

There is much talk about the beauty of active listening, but many people aren’t sure how it translates into actual behaviors. One of the main challenges to active listening is preoccupation with a response. Many people are busy formulating a perfect answer, which leaves no bandwidth to engage with the input. To get out of this habit, which is not really in service of the speaker, consider the following steps.

Rethink how to add value

You may think that adding value to an exchange is mostly about what you say. But that is not always how others perceive it. Most of us value responses that help us think through our own ideas, that clarify our assumptions or point out possible blind spots. We often don’t need a listener to be brilliant or impress us with their own data. Instead, we may value most how they helped us sharpen our thoughts.

Paraphrase without judgment

If you find yourself preoccupied with responding, try changing the focus of your response. Instead of aiming to add your own thoughts, task yourself with giving a summary that withholds your opinion or judgment. As you listen, make it your goal to give a concise summary, perhaps clarifying the speaker’s initial language.

Bonus points for repeating sticky language that the speaker recognizes as their own (“so you were frustrated with the project because the deadline was an uncomfortable high?”)

Ask questions that help speakers think

The next step from paraphrasing is to ask questions that move the needle. Much like the way a coach listens, these questions push speakers to go deeper into their own thinking, to clarify their expression or consider possible concerns. You can play devil’s advocate by pointing out inconsistencies or language that seems unclear. All of these are true gifts to a speaker and help you stay focused on listening.

Interrupt politely

Active listening isn’t mindless indulgence, and not all interruption is rude. Sometimes speakers get lost in the weeds, providing depths of detail you don’t need. Interruption can help them stay relevant – and be rewarded with more engagement.

Most speakers don’t mind being cut off by a question that lets them keep talking. Much harder, especially for introverts, is to interrupt someone in a meeting and end their floor time. Be sure to:

  • Validate the speaker (“Thank you for bringing that up.”)
  • Use a warm and polite tone. Get feedback from others on how you sound and come across.
  • Refer to shared interest (“I’d just like to make sure we get to hear from everyone about the project.”)

How to improve understanding and give understandable messages

The best messages are often simple. There’s no value in delivering any kind of communication, whether written, verbal, formal, or casual, if the message doesn’t come across clearly. Communicating concisely — while maintaining interest and including everything your team needs to know — is a high-level communication skill.

1. Keep your audience in mind

Your audience will naturally be more interested and engaged when you tailor your communications to their interests. Piquing their interest by speaking directly to what matters to them will naturally engage their desire to understand and interact with the information.

2. Don’t use 10 words when one will do

Even the most engaged and committed audience will eventually get bored. Keeping your message simple and concise will make it easier to understand and retain. Remember, you already know what you’re going to say, but they’re hearing it for the first time. Keep it simple.

3. Consider the best method to deliver your message

If the information you’re conveying isn’t urgent, consider sending an email or a memo. Written communication will give your audience more time to review it, think it over, and follow up with questions. It will also give them a handy record to refer back to.

4. Get them involved

If you’ve ever worked as an instructor, manager, trainer, or coach, you’ll know that there’s few better ways to learn new information than to teach it. Ask them for their input or to take a role in explaining new concepts and policies to their colleagues.

Ready to take your leaders to the next level? Try a demo of BetterUp.

How to improve face-to-face communication:

Communicating face-to-face adds multiple layers of information to an exchange, whether between two people or two hundred. Often, there’s a synergy created with in-person communication that’s difficult to replicate elsewhere. Here are some tips to make the most of face time with your team:

1. Make eye contact

If you’re wondering whether or not your message is getting across, few metrics provide as much feedback as eye contact. You can easily tell if the person you’re speaking to is understanding you, is distracted, worried, or confused — much of which is lost in digital communication.

2. Ask for feedback 

Not sure they got it? Ask! A powerful technique is to ask people to feed back their version of what you just said. Often, this can improve retention, immediate understanding, and minimize misunderstandings later on. You can also ask them to reach out to you with helpful ways that you can improve your delivery in presentations and other forms of communication.

3. Read non-verbal cues

Yawns, fidgeting, and looking around the room are usually clear signs that your audience is thinking about something other than what you’re trying to convey. If you notice this, don’t take it personally. Try asking them to share what’s on their mind, recap previous points they may have missed, or adjourn for a later time.

4. Minimize distractions

If you’re chatting with someone (or a group) face-to-face, keep distractions at bay by leaving unnecessary electronic devices out of the space. Keep the attendance limited to just those who need to be there, and avoid scheduling at a time when people are likely to focus on something else (like just before the end of the day or right before lunch).

How to improve online communication:

Online communication is rapidly replacing office spaces as the primary location of doing business. Especially if you’re used to working with in-person teams, it may be challenging to adjust to having meetings, conversations, and even people that collaborate with you or report to you digitally. Since online communication presents a unique way to interact, here are some things to keep in mind: 

1. Stick to a time limit

Online meetings can be even more difficult to focus on, since they incorporate the distractions of a nearly-unlimited number of settings. Keep the meetings short and to-the-point, and be especially vigilant about minimizing (potentially) marathon Q&A sessions.

2. Be mindful of the other person

Generally, the person presenting is the only one who can give the meeting their full attention. Especially when working from home, assume that participants have multiple demands for their attention and structure the content accordingly.

3. Recap important details

A lot of nonverbal and interpersonal cues can be lost over a digital connection. Ensure understanding by recapping the key points. You can either do a quick review in an online meeting or a brief summary at the end of a lengthy email.

4. Don’t forget to respond

Be sure to respond to each communication with a quick acknowledgment, even if it’s an informal one. Although you may have received the message, it’s likely that the person on the other end will have no way of knowing unless you let them know. A couple words or even a “like” will usually do the trick.

5 extra tips to sharpen your communication skills:

In general, if you’re looking to improve your communication skills, the following tips will help you succeed no matter the situation you find yourself in (or the audience you find yourself with):

  1. Be approachable. If your teammates feel intimidated or worried that you may not respond well, they’re less likely to come to you with information.
  2. Be patient. Not everyone communicates the same way. Taking the time to be sure you’ve understood the other person and communicated clearly can pay dividends.
  3. Be self-aware. It’s okay if you’re still developing your communication skills, nervous, or having a bad day. It takes time — and practice — to become a skilled communicator.
  4. Check for understanding. Don’t be afraid to invite feedback or ask questions to ensure that everyone’s on the same page.
  5. Switch out the messenger. Allow other team members or leaders to develop their communication skills by empowering them to lead discussions and meetings.

Final thoughts on effective communication strategies

As a leader and manager, you have tremendous power to set the tone for how your team communicates. While it can be easy to fall into bad communication habits, especially when transitioning to an increasingly digital interface, a shift in the way one individual communicates can open the doors for a radical shift throughout an entire workplace. Building effective communication skills takes time, but the effects are worth the effort at every level of your organization.

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Published April 7, 2021

Nicolas Gattig

Better Up Fellow Coach

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