When we need to build a bridge, we find a good engineer. When we need surgery we find a competent doctor. As we can all read, write and speak, what is so special about communication?
We should not overcomplicate it as we use it every day. We should also not underestimate it. It is a craft, a skill learnt over time and with practice. Good communicators can make it an art form.
It is how we declare love and war. It is how we share joy and anguish.
Communication is a leadership skill. Communication is too important to be left only to communicators. Whatever you do, share your talents and knowledge through better communication.
The Dean of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Stellenbosch, prof. Christo Viljoen, had a tough way of teaching his Afrikaans engineering students how to communicate. When their final year practical projects had to be assessed, he asked a female, English speaking, non-engineer lecturer from the University of Cape Town to help with the assessment.
The minute the students used technical terms, she would simply say: “I do not understand”. She badgered them until they could explain the merit and value of their models in simple language.
Prof Viljoen said: “Engineers do not have to sell their expertise to fellow engineers. They have to convince decision-making bodies such as boards and city councils why they should be given the project. These bodies are made up of non-engineers: church ministers, social workers, business people and other professions.”
When you communicate you have to answer five basic questions: What? Where? When? Why? How? This will satisfy the initial information needs.
Then the listener would want to know: “How does it affect me? What do you want me to do? Where can I find more information or help?
Always start with the objective of your communication: What do you want people to think and do when you have spoken to them?
You therefore have to do homework about your audience. Who are they? What do they know? What do they expect to hear? What questions, problems and objections could they have?
Also follow these golden rules: keep it simple (no jargon, buzzwords, acronyms), give the bigger picture (context) and repeat, repeat, repeat.
You have two ears and one mouth – use them in that ratio. Be interested, not interesting. Are you really listening or just thinking of your response? We have 24×7 global, mobile connectivity. You are not just transmitting data. You are communicating with a real, live fellow human being. Find the “People skills” key on your touch screen or keyboard!
When you have to communicate something important to many, have a communication plan:
- Objectives (what do you want to achieve?);
- Target audiences (whom are you speaking to?);
- Channels (which communication channels will your chosen target audience read, listen to or watch?);
- Key messages (the three or four messages you will repeat constantly, despite using different words);
- Content (what is relevant, newsworthy, well-presented and valuable for the recipient?);
- Timing (when do you communicate and when do you need to repeat?);
- Also cross-reference your various communication channels to strengthen and widen the impact of you message.
If you master these principles, you are more ready for probably the toughest test in communication: you as the spokesperson on a live, television interview about a controversial topic, with a hostile presenter!