How Strong Are Your Communication Skills? A Five-Step Plan to Improve This Career Deal-Breaker

– Posted in: career management

Communication skills like presenting - Caroline delivers a keynote at a legal conferenceI posted a three-part series in my Forbes column on communication skills in the job interview. The first entry is on non-verbal communication pet peeves in job interviews and was inspired by a question from a workshop attendee (this is why I’m always encouraging my readers to send questions – I do cover them in the blogs!). But I decided to expand the question and make it into a series because communication skills are that important.

The job interview angle is simply because my main beat on Forbes is job search, but communication skills are critical in every area of your career. Arguably, your communication skills are a deal-breaker in how far you’ll advance, whether you will successfully transition, or how effective you’ll be in your day-to-day job. However, unless your career involves public speaking, teaching, or some other obvious communications-heavy angle, you probably haven’t thought about your communications skills in a while. Here is a checklist of questions to help you reflect on how strong your communication skills are, as well as recommendations on next steps:

1 – What types of communication skills do you use in your line of work and how frequently?

1:1 conversations, small group meetings, large group presentations, negotiations, sales, media interviews, and customer service contact are all examples of verbal communication. You might do all of these or just some of these, and your frequency probably varies widely. Don’t forget written communication — emails, reports, letters, memos, announcements, speeches, marketing copy, visual data, PowerPoint, etc.

If it’s been a while since you’ve taken an inventory of what communication skills you tap into, spend some time reviewing your job and how much of each communication activity you do. Now you have a baseline of all the skills you need to maintain.

2 – Where do you feel most and least comfortable?

You may be a fabulous writer but freeze up when you need to present. You may be incredibly effective 1:1 but not as strong with groups. You may be fine in day-to-day interactions but unable to negotiate or deal with difficult conversations. Become aware of what is most and least comfortable for you, as well as gradations in-between.

Match your comfort level with the inventory of activity you put together from question 1. If a specific communication skill is a development area for you AND a critical part of your job, then this becomes the priority. Conversely, if you’re not a good presenter and never need to present, you may not have to address this skill now or ever.

3 – Is your role changing or has it recently changed such that different communication skills (e.g., large group public speaking, media relations, sales) are more important?

However, even if your current role doesn’t require a certain skill, if a promotion you aspire to would mean more presentations (continuing the above example), then you want to address this now before it becomes urgent. If you recently changed roles, you might be so focused on learning the ins and outs of the job that you haven’t noticed that the nature of your communication activity has changed – you’re dealing with more senior executives, you’re more external-facing and interacting with customers and/or media, you have increasing responsibility and more exposure to difficult conversations.

Look at the next 30-90 days of your To Do list. Which communication skills require your immediate attention?

4 – What support is readily available to help you hone your strengths, close any gaps, or tailor your skills for your new requirements?

Your company might offer in-house training on presentation skills or visual data tools, or you might be able to get tuition reimbursement for outside classes. A colleague with a knack for the skill you are looking to develop may be able to coach you. Your alma mater or professional association may also have offerings.

Check with HR, your manager, and friends who are strong in the skills you are interested in. Check for Meetups, local college courses, or Toastmaster chapters. There are many options for DIY professional development.

5 – What are your immediate and medium-term career goals, and what communication skills will be most important in reaching them?

In addition to your current role (including your potential path within your current company) you may have broader career aspirations – moving to a competitor, making a career change into a new industry or new functional area or both, expanding your network beyond your usual connections, starting a business venture, and more. Are your communication skills supporting or hindering your broader career goals? The closer I get to the empty-nest stage in my life when I can do the international travel that is a big priority for me, the more I am focused on virtual communication skills that give me the income-generation potential with flexibility to travel.

Unless you proactively take a step back and review the strength of your communication skills, you’ll likely default to overemphasizing where you’re strong and avoiding where you’re weak, even if your job, next job or broader career demands differently. Don’t move through your career by default! Review your communication skills regularly, and focus your efforts on the skills critical to your job today, near-term and longer-term.


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