As a leader, you’re likely on a continual quest for excellence. And while amassing experience and knowledge is valuable, there’s one area of professional development essential for success, no matter your industry or role: the ability to communicate effectively.
Effective communication means you connect with your audience and that they receive your intended message. Done well, it helps you connect to others, enhances your relationships, builds trust, and paves the way for career success by bridging gaps between you and your clients, colleagues, and partners.
You hone effective communication through deliberate practices; it doesn’t just happen. Here are five ways to sharpen your communication skills:
1. Be clear
Clarity is the foundation for effective communication. When you’re not clear, you’ll force others to do the difficult work of guessing your intended message. As a result, they’ll most likely get it wrong or be left scratching their heads. And when you confuse people, you’ll lose people.
The solution? Say what you mean and mean what you say. Resist the temptation to try and cover too much ground, and instead, focus on one takeaway. This forces you to get specific about and home in on your message, and it makes it easier for others to understand you, inspiring trust and confidence.
2. Be concise
Mark Twain famously said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” — a reference to how much harder brevity is than length.
A never-ending email or rambling voicemail is the kiss of death in the communications game. What you consider a stream of consciousness, others will view as unorganized and unsure meandering. You’ll quickly lose your audience’s attention — and the opportunity to communicate. When you want to deliver a message, be intentional about it, eliminate extraneous material, and get to the point.
3. Be mindful of your audience
Communication is only effective if your audience receives your intended message, so remember these four words: it’s not about you.
Far too often, we assume that everyone thinks, behaves, and communicates the same way we do; big mistake. Instead, take a beat to put yourself in your audience’s shoes, consider their wants and needs, and adjust your communications accordingly.
Also, be mindful of your audience’s communication preferences. Everyone communicates differently and has their favorite platforms. For every client who loves to send voice memos, there are many more who prefer texts. And some prefer that all correspondence happens through an executive assistant for calendar continuity. Don’t assume you know; ask and confirm.
4. Be intentional with your words
Your word choice sets the tone and elicits an emotional response, two things critical for effective communication. Incorporating evocative language into your repertoire opens you up to a more descriptive, interesting lexicon. Never again will you have to use “nice,” “good,” or “fine”— the four-letter milquetoasts of the word world. Instead, you’ll stand out, capture your audience’s attention, and ensure that your message will be more memorable.
And speaking of four-letter words to avoid, banish “just” from your vocabulary. (As in “Just checking in.”) Using it weakens your message and makes you appear meek and unsure of yourself. Worse, you sound like you’re apologizing (it’s thinly veiled code for “Sorry to bug you!”) or that somehow you and your request aren’t very important.
Remember, how you communicate is just as important as what you communicate. Action-oriented language conveys a strong, clear tone and propels us to do something rather than remain idle. Where possible, minimize passive language and use active voice to add more power and intention to your words.
5. Be proactive
Delaying talks, making assumptions, or never following up with someone will erode trust and weaken relationships. Ideally, you want to prevent problems (instead of trying to fix them after the fact), answer questions before they’re raised, and anticipate the needs of those with whom you’re working. Proactive communication can accomplish all of this.
Getting into the habit of initiating communications means managing expectations to set realistic timelines and deliverables, mustering the courage to have difficult conversations, and erring on the side of over-communicating by summarizing conversations, keeping everyone up-to-date and on the same page.
By deliberately honing your skills, you’ll become an effective communicator and leader who easily connects with others and builds trust and strong relationships, paving the way for career success.
This article is part of a multi-week series covering the range of soft skills and how to cultivate and apply them to your career. Be sure to check out my earlier articles on empathy, persuasion, connecting with others, and listening.