Could you be more effective at communication? For most of us, the answer is yes. And business leaders in particular need stellar communications skills to be effective. "Some of the problems we continue to encounter as leaders day after day originate because of a failure in communications. The good news is that many of these problems can be solved by improving our communications," according to Caren Merrick, founder of Pocket Mentor, an app and website that provides aspiring leaders with daily advice and action plans.

But while most leaders need to get better at communications, she notes, few have the time to take communications or speaking courses, or undergo lengthy training to improve their communications skills. If that sounds like you, the good news is that most leaders can improve their communication skills with a few relatively easy changes. 

Here's Merrick's advice:

1. Identify (and make peace with) your own communications style.

You may wish you were a great orator, or one of those people who radiates such warmth that everyone wants to hug you. But maybe that's not who you are, and if not, that's OK, Merrick says. Rather than try to jam yourself into a mold that may not fit, figure out what your own communication strengths are. 

"As with most anything, understanding ourselves--our strengths, weaknesses, and our tendencies--gives us insight and direction that result in faster progress than when we don't take the time for self-discovery," she says. To explore your own strengths and weaknesses, she recommends this quiz at Leadership IQ or this quiz at MindTools. Once you more fully understand your own communication style, you can leverage that style and play to your strengths to give both your spoken and written communications more power.

2. Learn to be a really good listener. 

The best communicators all have one thing in common--they are great listeners and astute in their observations, Merrick says. Fortunately, that's a skill anyone can develop or improve. "Do you have weekly management or staff meetings?  Be more intentional in these meetings and notice what is being said and not said," she advises. 

When you commit to being a more intentional listener and asking more questions, you will learn a surprising amount about the people who work with you, your projects, your customers, and even yourself, she adds. "It's worth taking a few moments after key conversations each day to ask yourself, 'what did I learn?'" she says. "Or do this once a day and write it down. It creates space for you to gain powerful insights you will use as you lead."

3. Know what you want to achieve with every communication.

"This sounds so simple, but it is easier said than done," Merrick says. It's a shame, because that lack of clarity and clear objectives derails or prolongs many conversations, meetings, and even projects. 

To avoid having this happen, spend enough time before the communication to gain clarity, she advises. "Ask yourself if your objective is to inform, empower, or persuade. Do you need to address a group or an individual?  Who is your audience and why do they care?"

Now that you're clear on your  objective, get there in as straight a line as you can. Be specific rather than general, be concise rather than delivering information that may be complex or confusing. Expect the same from the people who work for you as well.

"Once you know your objective, begin your conversations (in person, over the phone, by video conference, or in email) with your key point," she says.

4. Find a role model.

One of the quickest ways to improve your skills is to find someone who models the skills you want, Merrick says. "This week, think of two to three people who have had an impact on you in their communications. These can be people you admire, or have worked with, or those whom you may not have even met."

Once you've picked your role models, figure out what appeals to you about their communications. Can you identify the qualities in their communications that make them so effective? "Some of my communications role models are people I have not met, but who have given TED Talks," Merrick says. "These include Professor Amy Cuddy, whose research shows how your body language shapes who you are. Brene Brown, who talks about her research about the power of vulnerability is another. Of course, these speakers worked very hard to hone and practice their message before delivering it, but neither expected their content to resonate as it has."

Why did these two talks become viral hits? "I believe it was their authenticity, honesty, knowing themselves, telling their story, and having a good blend of facts and emotion that helped them better connect with their audience," she says.

5. Get personal.

"One quick idea you can borrow from these effective communicators is the power of personal  stories," Merrick notes. "Add a few of your own to your communications toolkit, and tell them often, in order to get better at storytelling."

Merrick likes to tell how she did not start college until she was 25, yet went on to co-found a company that grew to 1,100 employees--to make the point that it's never too late to start or finish something that's important for your personal development and career. "Personal anecdotes can help you make your ideas and proposals real and relatable to a variety of people," she says. "For example,  have you come up with an idea to make a product or service better? What happened? What two or three nuggets did you take away that would help your team? What obstacles did you overcome?"

Ask yourself questions like these, and how your answers can illustrate or inspire your audience. "Many of the challenges we face as leaders can be improved when we improve our communications," she says. "If you are intentional and make it a priority, you can become a great communicator."

Published on: Feb 7, 2016
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