Better Communication Skills – What do you mean?

“This is the chance to ask your burning questions.” That was the invitation to the audience during Linked Training’s (almost) Australia wide Road Show in 2015. Of course that places the respondent (me) in the vulnerable position of providing a succinct answer whilst thinking on my feet. Sometimes the response is too short to be of real value. A longer opportunity to communicate is necessary to respond to the complex question.

“What is the main skill you believe Records and Information Managers are most lacking in?” was such a question posed to me. My immediate response – “Communication!”

In a few short minutes I extrapolated on the topic acutely aware that a full day was really required to fully explain why that was the response. The answer was too simplistic, and the response too superficial, to provide any launching point from which people could analyse if their communication skills are adequate in the current recordkeeping environment.

Communication may be the broadest and most multi-faceted skill there is. Improving communication skills is a life long journey with no end point. The more skilled you become at communicating well, the clearer the opportunity for continued improvement is. Skilled people are very aware when they’ve failed to communicate well, and what improvement is needed!

It’s a foundation skill for career improvement, and yet when promotion is gained due to good communication skills, the new position will generally expose you to:

  • Greater diversity and numbers of people to be communicated to,
  • More complex information to communicate, and
  • Increased political pressure/risk associated with what is being communicated.

The communication skills which aided gaining the promotion may suddenly be inadequate for managing well in the new role. More learning is required, but more learning on which facet?

The complete package of skill sets required to be highly skilled in communicating will include:

communication skills

Most commonly, when the topic of ‘communication’ is raised the discussion centres on the use of verbal and written language. The additional skill sets to deliver a valuable communication package is far greater than just this single set. And each skill set is far more complex than the short, descriptive title indicates. Each skill set encompasses a broad range of complex and interrelated communication activity.

Strategic planning & measuring results

Before any communication package is planned or designed or any message written there must be a goal in place and a strategic approach to achieving that goal. Otherwise how can you know what your communications are trying to achieve or if you are successful?
Success is not the delivery of the communications, but the outcome when they are received.

For example, in an EDRMS training project a successful communications program will achieve its goal if a high percentage of participants enrol on instruction to do so, participate in their booked session, and use the EDRMS appropriately on returning to their desk post training. The strategy required to achieve this will vary by project, but will include a combination of presentations, emails, communication packages used at team meetings, posters and trainer delivered messages, each of which would provide a specific purpose and message at a specific time.

To achieve the right outcomes we review what the stakeholders must be feeling, thinking and doing in response to each specific communication, and design the content and channel accordingly.

Good communication skills require the ability to plan timeliness for the different communications to the different stakeholders. Then to use experience and analysis skill to measure the response to each communication; did people act as desired? This may even include measuring if people did nothing, as some communications will be just to keep people engaged and calm, rather than a call to action. Where the communication response is not what was aimed for, then the ability to learn, and adapt the plan and content is necessary. This particular skill requires the communicator to have a positive attitude to self-appraisal and continuous improvement, and is a rarity.

Within the records industry there is a strong tendency to create communications plan without a clearly defined goal, or strategic approach. Messages are rarely created based on what the stakeholders need the communication to be in order for them to take action (the Feel, Think, Do model). They are based on what is comfortable for the staff member to write, and what they believe will be acceptable to the Marketing and Communications Unit. In addition once a communications plan is in place there is no adaptation based on outcomes of the communication, but a tendency to plough on with the same plan even if it has gone awry.

Stakeholder analysis & relationship building

Who has a high degree of power over the success of your project by virtue of doing or not doing things? Who has a negative outlook on the project or program your communications are supporting? Who do you need to take action, know about your actions, or prevent from instigating negative actions or rumours?

These are your stakeholders, and some will be easy to communicate with and satisfy. Others will be challenging to meet their needs, but rewarding when you do. And there will be naysayers who need a high degree of change management in addition to your communication project to prevent detrimental impacts on your project.

Analysing and understanding the culture of your organisation is essential. In addition to identifying stakeholders (some of who may not be obvious without understanding the culture), it will inform strategy, language, and channels to use.

To work with each stakeholder effectively, leadership, storytelling and listening skills are essential. The stakeholders need to believe it is worthwhile giving you attention, and that their thoughts, ideas and issues will be respected. If at present you’re not gaining the attention you think is warranted for the importance of the project, improving relationship building skills will be a critical skill to develop.

Communication channel knowledge & talent

There is a rapidly growing and complex web of communication channels by which we communicate with our audience. It can even be difficult to gain the attention of the young these days by email; but send a Facebook message or an SMS and you’ll get an instant response. Good communications requires understanding and careful selection of the most appropriate communication channel for each message and each audience; which could mean a complex structure of communications.

In addition a communication expert will need to be able to effectively work with each channel. This employs more than written or verbal skills. Can you create a You Tube video, draft ideas for posters, adapt language to social media platforms, or as minimum understand the full capability and use to these? Even the traditional channels, such as delivering a presentation, require specialist skills. For the old and the new this type of skill is often associated with individual talents, and the capability to learn, even with good training, may be limited.

Verbal & written language ability

Fundamental to good communication is the ability to express concepts and ideas using written and oral language appropriate to the target audience. Sadly an individual’s ability to demonstrate this will vary depending on the type of communication a project requires to be successful.
Verbal ability includes subject knowledge, language breadth and dexterity, and tone and pace of voice. It is closely tied with mental adroitness; the ability to choose the right complexity of phrase for the audience and the message, and adapt it on the spot. Verbal communication is two way, and skilled communicators will read verbal and physical feedback to measure if ideas are being understood, and reframe within the situation to ensure the right message is received. Good communicators work to change their approach, rather than dismiss the audience’s intelligence and attitude if a communication session fails.

Written ability includes spelling, sentence structure, phrasing and expression on a “page”. This must be adapted to the communication channel and, again, the audience. For example: ‘Hip’ words and expressions used on social media will be more broadly appropriate if the audience is under 30, than to an audience over 60; marketing style language is used in poster promotions to sell to an audience in situations where they will merely glimpse the communication method. A person who is a competent and talented communicator as a technical writer, can be a poor communicator using alternate written channels. Specific skills are not always transferable by the individual communicator to another genre or channel.

Adding more complexity to this skill set is the necessity to understand body language when using verbal communication. Physical presence in a meeting or presentation, including personal styling, is the first impression of the communication that is about to be received. The image of a nervous, hand wringing person will outweigh the positive, confident words spoken on a topic. Judgements will be unconsciously made of a project, the leadership and the worthiness of becoming engaged in it based on body language.

Conclusion

Good, better, best; never let it rest, until the good is better and the better is best.

Except … when it comes to communication you will always be resetting the bar on what is good, constantly driving towards better, with best a shimmering, unattainable vision in the future.

Communication is complex and the skill sets are interdependent. Individuals may be exceedingly skilful in one facet of communication, but let down in achieving the required outcomes because of unconscious incompetence in another skill set. Or because gaining the resources to fill their skill gap is difficult.

I believe that communication is the most significant skill gap in preventing for the RIM profession achieving project goals based on my experience and evidence in working with the industry over the past 10 years. Fundamentally there is a lack of awareness of the complexity of communication. A large number of people create their own project resistance through poor communication, and once it has occurred are powerless to react appropriately and turn the tide of negativity.

Critique of an individual’s communication skills is easily interpreted as criticism of personality and character, rather than advice on improving. Most managers avoid taking that path and the defensive response, unless they have the capability to communicate the need for improvement in the right language, at the right time and provide the support to improve.

I suggest starting to improve communications by your Records and Information unit by exploring the self-help Change Management Toolkit published by Change Factory. In addition, throughout 2016 we will publish a series of articles specific to improved communications specifically for the industry. With time and effort the industry will become better at communicating.

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