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20 min read

How to improve communication skills

You could be incredibly talented and skilled at what you do, but without decent communication skills how will people know? By improving your speaking, writing and (not to forget) listening you will improve your business relationships and sales.

Why are good communication skills important in business?

Everything that happens in business results from communication and it is one of the most highly valued skills in the workplace. Communication is how we make a human connection with our colleagues and customers. It’s how we build rapport, lead teams, agree what’s going to be done, collaborate on projects and persuade people that we’re the best person for the job. It stands to reason that the better you are at communication, the quicker your career is likely to progress and the higher the levels of self-esteem and confidence you will have.

Despite this, it’s also a skill that most of us don’t often consider trying to directly improve, resigning ourselves to the fact that we’re simply ‘shy’, don’t like ‘selling ourselves’ and ‘hate networking’.

But what if we approach communication from a different angle?

Thinking of it not just as a way for us to talk about ourselves, but as a way to make other people feel more engaged as we listen to them and learn what they need, to explain ideas more concisely to avoid confusion and to motivate our teams to increase productivity.

As we will show, anyone can boost their communication skills with a bit of guidance and some practice.

But first, what are common areas people struggle with when it comes to communicating?

Women on smartphone

Confidence in communication can be particularly challenging if you are new to a role or project. In this situation, it’s best to be honest – say if you don’t understand things and ask lots of questions.

A lack of self-belief can also lead to problems with confidence in communication. This can often be the case for freelancers who work alone and may not have much experience, particularly face to face . You can end up agreeing to things that you haven’t meant to or even feeling sick at the thought of making contact with people.

As much as 75% of the population struggles with the fear of public speaking. The first step to controlling nerves is to understand why you get nervous and then question those fears. They are likely to be based on you catastrophising the situation, assuming that something terrible (and extremely unlikely) will happen.

Rightly or wrongly, first impressions won’t be made on what you say or do, but on what you wear. Try to match the level of the people you are meeting, or, if in doubt, err on the side of slightly smarter. Whatever the dress code, looking your best will help you feel your best and it’s a good excuse to go shopping.  

Let’s not forget the importance of body language too. Actions speak louder than words and they certainly do in a business environment. Making sure that you ‘show up’ with your body language is crucial to the impression you will make on people. Be present – when others are speaking, give them the verbal and non-verbal attention that you would like to receive – greet people, pay attention, make eye contact, smile, nod. And stop checking your phone!

Why listening is important

Being a good listener is not a skill that many of us can say we’ve nailed. We’re so consumed with thinking about our own priorities, what we’re going to say next or what we’re going to have for dinner that it’s so easy to drift. Attention spans are at their lowest thanks to technology.  

But if you can master the art of listening, you’ll take one giant leap forward in business. Ideas will start flowing before the conversation has ended, relationships will grow stronger and people will listen to you and respect you more in return.

Keep these five points in mind to become a better and an active listener:

  1. Face them and maintain eye contact.
  2. Listen to understand, not to reply.
  3. Don’t interrupt.
  4. Take notes where appropriate.
  5. If your mind drifts, acknowledge it (in your head) and then start to focus again, this acknowledgement will help you improve next time.

Video: How to speak so that people want to listen

by TED

Julian Treasure is a sound and communication expert. In this video, he explains how to speak so that people listen and the seven deadly sins to avoid.

Improving verbal communication

Being a good communicator is one thing but you also need to be versatile. Adapting how you communicate depending on your audience and your objectives might seem obvious but it’s easy to misfire. Context is everything. A sales pitch, for example, will take on a very different flavour to a client meeting. Here are some basic things to remember to help you sharpen up your communication skills in different scenarios.


5 do’s and don’ts for sales pitches

Your homework. Arrive late or go over the time allocated.
Plan and practice. Just talk about yourself.  
Use attractive visuals. Waffle.
Give stories, solutions and evidence. Lack empathy.
Get feedback. Give too many choices.

5 do’s and don’ts for client meetings

Introduce yourself to everyone. Forget to confirm the meeting.
Listen carefully to their requirements. Turn up unprepared.
Prepare some answers, especially for questions that can potentially be awkward like ‘how much do you charge?’ Talk about yourself too much.
Agree what you’ll do and by when before you leave. Have your laptop open or check your phone unless necessary.
Thank the client. Over promise.

5 do’s and don’ts for networking and events

Go to learn about others, not talk about yourself. Say how much you hate networking.
Use social media to find out who’s going to be there and chat to them in advance. Hide in the corner, toilet, at the bar or behind a plant.
Get out of your comfort zone. Forget your business cards.
Try different types of event. Hijack the conversation.
Think of it as an experience to learn from. Forget the follow-up.

Checklist: Improving written communication skills

The written word is still a major form of communication in the workplace – in emails, presentations, business proposals and marketing materials. More often than not something that’s written will be your first point of contact with people you hope to work with in job applications and sales letters, or in introducing yourself to other team members. How you put yourself across will build the foundations of those relationships.

Take the time to write something that’s worthy of attention and that will get noticed, even if it’s a cold email. Put some thought into it and proofread, proofread, proofread. Mistakes will make you look, at best, rushed, and at worst, unprofessional.

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Selling to and winning clients

One of the most important things to remember when trying to win new business is that you’re dealing with a person and people work with people that they like. Whether you’re doing business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C) sales and marketing, really it’s always just P2P (person-to-person). 

First, find new prospective clients, then:

  • Business networking
    1. Build rapport

    Find common ground but make judgement calls on how chatty and personal the client or prospect wants to get.

  • Women talks in meeting
    Be confident

    Confidence will make you seem professional and will make them feel confident in you. If you don’t feel confident, fake it until you make it.

  • Business meeting, man talking
    Be yourself

    It’s a complex balancing act when you’re trying to adapt your actions to someone else’s reactions and fake a bit of confidence but while doing this it’s also really important that you’re authentic and genuine. People will usually see straight through it otherwise.

  • Writing on computer
    Write well

    Whether you’re presenting yourself on paper or in person, make it memorable.

  • Man presenting on board

    Take the time to understand what the client wants and always do what you say you’re going to do and then a bit more.

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