As a recent New Yorker article points out, sports performance has wildly improved over the past few decades. World records are continually being broken, and each generation of athletes plays harder and faster than those who came before.
It's not just the Olympic-level athletes and teams who've radically improved, though. It's happening everywhere in sports. For example, a top high school basketball team today could probably trounce a top pro team from the 1960s.
Why the difference? Today athletes spend hours a day training the basics. Back then, coaches and athletes considered basic practice to be a waste of time and expending energy that would more wisely remain hoarded until real game time.
Which leads me to the workplace. While the technology we use has obviously become more powerful, when it comes to the business basics--writing, speaking, and listening--the average level of "play" has gotten worse since the Mad Men era.
Take writing, for instance. Because it's so easy on a computer to slap down text and paste in boilerplate, your average email today is longer and more stuffed with buzzwords than the average memo in the 1960s.
Same thing with public speaking. Fueled by PowerPoint, presentations have become more tedious than in the days of overhead slides. And as for listening, with so many workplace distractions, few people bother.
The problem isn't with our technology, though. The problem is that we've assumed that the technology would make us better communicators, when all it's done is make us faster communicators.
Ironically, information overload makes communicating clearly more important than ever. Today, only the crispest messages cut through the noise, only the tightest presentations are remembered, and only the deepest conversations create lasting relationships.
Even so, there are few if any companies that offer daily training on the basic skills of writing, speaking, and listening. As a result, most organizations are full of mediocre performers, peppered with an occasional person with natural talent.
Corporate neglect of the basics, however, opens up an incredible opportunity for anybody willing to train regularly to improve basic communication skills. With that in mind, here's a weekly program:
Monday: Watch and analyze a TED talk.
Time commitment: 20 minutes
If all you ever experience on a regular basis are the long-winded, boring presentations of your peers, you'll naturally and gradually become long winded and boring yourself. The antidote to this is to watch at least one TED talk on YouTube every week.
Don't just watch it, though; think about how the speaker is presenting the information. Notice how he or she uses (or doesn't use) slides. Listen to the tone, and notice the way each TED talk tells a story, and doesn't just provide information.
Tuesday: Read and critique a top blogger.
Time commitment: 10 minutes
If all you're reading for work is trade magazines and interoffice memos, you'll start imitating that mediocre writing found in them. Instead, read something written by a truly exceptional business writer.
Rather than articles, though, I recommend reading blog posts, because they're similar to regular business communications. My personal favorite blogger is the fearless Penelope Trunk, but some other great business bloggers are Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin, Bob Sutton, Dan Road, Tom Peters, and John Jantsch.
If, for some odd reason, you want to do this exercise with my blog, the easiest way to get updates is to subscribe to my free weekly newsletter. It goes out on Tuesday mornings.
Whichever blogger you read, don't just read a post for the content. Pull it apart; critique it. Observe how the writer introduces and develops a topic, and how he or she structures sentences and paragraphs.
Reading a writer who's more talented than yourself gradually improves your writing, a fact known practically since the invention of writing itself.
Wednesday: Actively listen to a top podcast.
Time commitment: 15 minutes
Active listening means turning off the chattering "monkey mind," or inner dialogue, and instead keeping completely focused on what the other person is saying. (This is difficult, because your mind processes words faster than most people talk.)
Practicing active listening with a podcast is easier than when actually talking to somebody, because 1) you're not being asked to respond, and 2) a good podcast captures your attention.
To do this exercise, sit in a quiet place, fire up a podcast on your phone or tablet, and then just listen. Hang on every word, as they say. Don't do anything else, like a chore or exercise. Keep your attention completely on the podcast.
The listening skill you develop during this exercise will quickly increase your capacity for actively listening to other people in the workplace.
BTW, it's not necessary to do this for an entire podcast. If it's longer than fifteen minutes, you need only actively listen to those first minutes. My personal favorites are Serial (of course) and This American Life, but there's no lack of excellent material available.
Training yourself to focus completely on what's being said will make your work relationships closer, because you'll understand your co-workers better. You'll also find that you're better liked than before.
Thursday: Rewrite an incoming email.
Time commitment: 5 minutes
The key to effective writing is finding what's important to the reader in the midst of all the verbiage and then reducing that essence to a few short sentences. (I've previously discussed this process for creating better sales messages and elevator pitches.)
It's easier to "capture the gist" with incoming emails, because you are the intended audience and know what's important to you, the reader. Example:
Hope this email finds you well! As November is the annual "National Career Development" month, I wanted to follow up on the below and see if you would be interested in speaking with an XYZ Training expert to discuss career tips on how to succeed in your professional life and achieve your goals. While it's important for employees to remain focused on their day-to-day tasks, at the same time, it's also a good idea to put a plan in place outlining larger goals in order to ensure individual career success. Please let me know if you are interested in speaking with an XYZ Training expert and I will happily coordinate an interview as soon as possible.
Career goals are important to your readers. I can set you up with an expert who will explain how managers can win employee loyalty by helping them plan for the future.
Rewriting and shortening at least one incoming email a day gradually helps you communicate in smaller sentences and with simpler words. This, in turn, makes your own writing more likely to cut through the noise.
Friday: Have a peer coach you.
Time commitment: 10 minutes
Chances are that during the week you've encountered situations where you wish you could have written or spoken more effectively. Since you probably don't have access to a coach, the next best thing is to ask a peer to review your work.
Ask somebody you trust to look at one of your emails or listen to one of your presentations. Ask him or her how you might have done better, or what would have worked better. Needless to say, you should be willing to reciprocate the same service!
Informal peer reviews are also a superb time to practice your listening skills. When your peer is providing his or her perspective, listen openly and without getting defensive (that's your inner dialogue getting in the way).
Over time, you'll find that another perspective on your work increases your ability to write, speak, and listen, which inevitably will make you more effective and therefore more successful.