‘Excellent Communication Skills’: What Does It Really Mean?

Posted October 13, 2011, by Mike Kermode

So you think you’ve got good communication skills? Well, you wouldn’t be alone.

Almost everyone lays claim to having ‘excellent communication skills’, and every job requires them – but what does it really mean? And what does it mean to have these skills when it comes to your job?

Most jobs need good communicators, people who can express themselves clearly and positively, both verbally and in writing. It’s one of the key ingredients of success, so it pays to understand what’s involved – and there’s more to ‘good communication’ than the obvious.

The problem is that ‘good communication skills’ is a phrase so overused, and so broad, that it’s hard to know what it’s really saying.

Having good communication skills in the workplace is all about being able to convey information to people clearly and simply, in a way that means things are understood and get done. It’s about transmitting and receiving messages clearly, and being able to read your audience. It means you can do things like give and understand instructions, learn new things, make requests, ask questions and convey information with ease.

It also means that you can adapt yourself to new and different situations, read the behaviour of other people, compromise to reach agreement, have difficult conversations with ease, and avoid and resolve conflict. In fact, a large part of good communication is about being empathic, so you can understand how others will interpret your words and behaviour. And don’t forget that communication is a two-way street, so being a good listener is vital.

Good communication skills are some of the simplest, most essential and most useful tools for success you can possess. In fact, they are probably the number one ability sought by employers. So if you’re lacking in this department, you might like to keep the following in mind.

Keep your head up

Open hands, good eye contact, plenty of smiling, good posture, respect for others’ personal space: these are all part and parcel of good communication. They all display your positive attitude and help present you as reliable and open. Having good body language establishes trust and rapport and means people will not only have more confidence in you, but will want to listen to and work with you.

The gift of the gab

Good language doesn’t necessarily mean that you need the oratorical skills of Winston Churchill, and doesn’t just mean being proficient in English (although it helps – a lot). It also means that your diction is clear and audible, your sentences are concise, your thought processes are logical and your delivery is flowing. Being a confident and amiable speaker establishes trust with your audience and helps you elicit information and make introductions. This helps to maintain strong relationships at work with co-workers and clients.

Speaking well also requires you to adapt your speech to suit your audience, involving changing your word choice and tone for different scenarios. You have to be flexible to communicate effectively and use lingo that’s appropriate and understandable to your listeners. 

Be a wordsmith

Ever received a text that was over-abbreviated, or an email that just didn’t make sense? Communicating well also means being able to write well, or well enough to get your message across clearly. This doesn’t just mean spelling, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation, but also being able to read quickly, use email, attach documents, and send and respond to messages in an appropriate timeframe. And, like speaking, choosing those words that are just right for the situation.

Mind your milieu

The appropriateness of your language in different contexts is crucial. Your effectiveness as a communicator is entirely contingent on how you adapt your messages for different situations, different environments, different audiences and different purposes.

How you communicate at work also depends on the job. If you’re a teacher, for example, you need the whole gamut of communication skills – written, spoken, body language – because you’ll be talking to a multitude of individuals and groups. You need to be empathic, but also commanding. Morphing these signals to match the scenario is partly what will make you a good teacher. These skills would be balanced differently for, say, a corporate lawyer or a retail salesperson.

On paper and in person

Your resume and cover letter are the first glimpse an employer has of who you are. And while it doesn’t take much to write ‘I possess excellent communication skills’ in your cover letter, the truth of the claim quickly becomes evident when you’re face-to-face with the interviewer.

With a cover letter, a prospective employer can immediately assess your writing skills – your ability to spell, construct a coherent sentence and proofread your own work. If you want to be taken seriously as a contender, you have to ensure that both your resume and cover letter are grammatically sound and devoid of spelling errors.

Your application also gives the employer the chance to assess your ability to read accurately and carefully, based on how well you address the job requirements, and how well you expand on and illustrate specific points. Because so much is revealed by your resume and cover letter as the first step in your communication, arming yourself with a top-notch package should be your top priority.

Once you make the cut and make it to the interview, the employer is privy to all your communicative quirks, and this will have a large bearing on your suitability and prospects. They will check out your body language, speaking skills, your confidence, your word choice, your tone – the whole shebang. Good communication skills here will be hard to fake, so it’s worth practising answering potential interview questions and doing as much preparation as possible.

In the interview, you could be asked to give an example of when you have exercised good communication skills in the past. You could pick from a host of situations: a time when you deftly avoided conflict, or resolved a conflict; or the time you sold a product to a hesitant customer or pitched an idea to your boss. In all cases, you can approach it from several angles at once, highlighting your capacity for empathy, understanding and diplomacy, your ability to adapt to the situation, and how your direct approach saw something resolved sooner rather than later.

Regardless of what field you’re in and despite the apparent hollowness of the term, honing your ‘communication skills’ will pay you back many times over. If you get it right, you’re guaranteed to have a much smoother path through life and your career.

What’s the most undervalued job skill?

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Mike Kermode

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