It's been heartening to see heightened interest in soft skills in response to rising automation and the shrinking half-life of hard or technical skills. I'm among those who believe soft skills and continuous learning will be what lift some careers while others stagnate.
I'll go one step further and suggest that the No. 1 soft skill to develop is to become an effective communicator. Bots and algorithms can't provide context, analysis, and nuance the way a human can, but "better than a bot" is a pretty low bar to set for yourself.
Regardless of your field, you are communicating constantly with colleagues, teams, partners, clients, stakeholders, etc., but are you as good at it as you could be? If not, you're likely missing opportunities to sell your ideas, focus your team, gain credibility and respect, reach your goals, and avoid a lot of wasted time and confusion.
Work on written communication
Have you ever emailed someone only to get a response that raises more questions than it answers? Not every email needs to be as beautiful and thoughtfully crafted as a Shakespearean sonnet, but it does need to be clear and thorough.
One of the biggest flaws I see in written communications is a failure to provide context. You don't need to include every detail, but it's important for people to understand the background of what you're saying, especially in those threads where new recipients get added halfway in.
Similarly, rather than just hitting forward to blast a message out, consider how you could add value to the conversation and ensure recipients pick up the points you want them to. Don't assume people will get it.
I also strongly recommend taking that one last read before sending. Misspellings, typos, and incorrect grammar may seem like no big deal among co-workers, but this stuff matters. Unclear or sloppy writing generates follow-up messages asking for clarity, and we all get enough emails and chat pings without having to send and read more in order to understand what someone is trying to say.
Improve spoken communication
You may never appear on a big stage, but you can still benefit from learning a few basics of public speaking. Before your next meeting, you can prepare and give careful thought to the ideas you need to communicate and how best to reach your audience.
Most of us only make that effort for "important" meetings, but every meeting is supposed to be a productive time for groups to ideate, make decisions, solve problems, or develop plans together. And all of those activities require good communication.
If you can't clearly communicate why you're meeting and what needs to happen next, you're not likely to make efficient progress. And if you can't articulate your point of view convincingly, you're not likely to win many allies.
Pay attention to tone of voice
Examples abound of listeners getting hung up on how something is said and totally missing (or dismissing) what was said, such as assuming a too-casual tone in a professional communication or trying so hard to "sound right" that you come across as inauthentic.
To communicate effectively, you need to keep it simple and adopt a tone suited to your audience, message, and context. You're already modulating your tone without even trying when you use language to explain your work at an industry networking event, compared to how you describe your job to friends at happy hour or to your mom.
If writing isn't your vocation and you struggle to find the right words, don't overthink it. Just start typing or speak the point you're trying to make out loud, and you'll often find the simple, familiar language you'd use in a business conversation works just as well on paper. Adding jargon and buzzwords won't make you sound smarter, just more verbose.
Don't be soft about soft skills
Poor communication consumes valuable time and headspace none of us can afford to waste--and can even hold you back in your career.
Make a point to follow great communicators and reflect on why their writing and speaking connects with you. Then slow down and pay attention to your own communications and see where you can emulate their skills. Notice when people ask questions about things you thought you'd already explained and look for patterns where people get tripped up following your thought process or misinterpret your intentions.
To build your communications skills, you need to set your mind to it and practice. A lot. Becoming a great communicator won't happen without effort and it won't happen overnight, but it's definitely a skill that will help you get ahead.