Developing Communication Skills

Communication forms the essence of everything we do in life - in business, relationships, education, government, society.  Everything we do requires communication, and without good communication, it is difficult to succeed what we wish to do.

In Webster's New World Dictionary, the word communicate is defined as:  (1) to receive Holy Communion, which is a Christian rite in which bread and wine are consecrated and received as the body and blood of Jesus or as symbols of them; (2) to give or exchange information; (3) to have a meaningful relationship; and (4) to be connected.  Each of the definitions relates to dealing with other people, whether it's Jesus in the form of His body and blood, or with other people.  Communication refers to dealing with, connecting with, and relating to other people.

While technology has made it easier to make physical contact, such as via telephone, fax, internet, email, and now video conferencing, we still need personal communication skills to make that contact useful, worthwhile, and effective, whether for business or for personal development.  Good ideas are not worth anything if one is not able to communicate the ideas and get people to receive your communication.  In today's age, business and society's problems are so complex that rarely can they be solved by any one person or group working in isolation.  And this is why to succeed and to live in today's world, one needs to develop effective skills in communication.

Elsewhere on this site, there are articles on public speaking and on writing clearly and concisely.  Skill in those areas help you to present your ideas and thoughts to others.  In this article, I will discuss interpersonal skills when you function in and amongst a group of people.

There are many books written on how to improve your interpersonal skills, how to mingle in a social gathering, how to conduct a business meeting, surviving in the corporate jungle, etc.  In this article, I wish only to touch on several ways and ideas that I have found useful in conducting my interpersonal relationships.  Many of the ideas I follow and do regularly; a few I may have read about, and thought, "What a good idea", but may not have actually done it myself.

What are some good references?  As I said, there are many books that deal with this subject, but two which are slightly tangential to this subject, make for interesting reading, and contain key concepts that I hope you can grasp and find useful in helping you develop your interpersonal skills:
"Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus", John Gray, Thorsons, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 1992

While this book is all about male-female relationships and how to develop loving and healing relationships, especially with a spouse, it's as much about communication as anything else - how to convey your messages and how to hear what messages are being conveyed to you.

"Charisma", Tony Alessandra, Warner Books, 1998

The title says "Charisma", but the essence is about building confidence in yourself, by developing skills in the ability to talk, to adapt, to listen, to speak, and to persuade, and how to present yourself.

(This book was loaned to me by a friend just recently.  At first, I called this book "good sleeping pill" because invariably I would fall asleep after reading a few pages.  But as you get into it, the book grows on you.  Though I am reluctant to admit it, the book may have a more profound influence on me than I suspect.) (There are a number of other books by John Gray, but this one was his first and most well-known.) (This book is really about presenting yourself, and helps you to develop the needed skills.  Both books are suitable to place by the bed for bedtime reading, or to place by the toilet.  Both are easy reading, and can be entered or exited at any time or any place in the book.)

Functioning at a Social Gathering

Often, an aspiring business executive will be confronted with situations where his communication skills can be put to good use in developing new contacts or to learn new things.  Usually, these situations are the social parts of a business oriented seminar or at social receptions related to some business event.  Of course, the executive could just look upon his/her attending as a chore, or he could try to put the time he will be attending to good use for his own benefit, and to develop his skills in this area.  (From here on, I will use only the masculine form of he/him, though of course the comments apply equally well to female executives.)

So, by way of example, let's say the young executive will be attending a cocktail reception connected to some business event, such as the public listing of a company, or the opening of a new office, or some similar function.  When he's there, what are some of the useful ideas and actions that he might consider taking as he "works the room" to obtain the most benefit from the time he will spend on this activity.
There is nothing like preparation for any activity.  Think what you wish to accomplish at this function - who you wish to meet, what you wish to learn, what meetings you wish to set up. 

Find out who will be attending, and for those who you wish to meet, learn something about them and/or their companies, and prepare some opening question or comment to break the ice in talking to them.  Make sure you have enough up-to-date business cards.

Dress well, in an understated elegant manner.  If the reception will be at the end of the office day, and you will not have a chance to bathe, bring along a clean shirt/tie, and a change of underwear to the office.  Be hygienic - brush your teeth, wipe off unpleasant body odours, use a some amount of deodorant or cologne, if necessary.

Have prepared what is called an "elevator speech", which is a compact, concise, and clear summary of any idea or proposal or statement which can be delivered in the time it takes an elevator to travel a few floors.  To be able to explain something in a clear, short, and compelling way is very powerful.

Most important of all, be yourself, but be a confident self.

Be prompt, arrive slightly early or on time.  Don't be fashionably late - no one notices.  It had been suggested that for people you wish especially to meet, that you pen a short note to that effect, and leave it attached to that person's name tag if one is available, awaiting his arrival.  I've never done that, because it seemed a bit overboard, but I suppose it could work to get that person's attention.

If, upon entering the room, there is no one that you recognize right off, then go get a drink, eat some food, and just take a few moments to relax and compose yourself.

It's quite all right to approach others, introduce yourself, and strike up a pleasant conversation.  They are probably glad to have someone else take the initiative to have someone to stand with and talk to.  What subjects can you talk about?  Well, almost anything of an innocuous nature - what's their relationship to this event, who they work for, what they do, etc.

Working the room
By now, more people have arrived, and it's time for you to "work the room".  You should have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, and how much time you wish to spend in this activity.  Don't be the first to arrive and the last to leave.  Limit yourself as to the time you wish to spend here.

The two most difficult things to do in working the room is: (1) how to engage, and (2) how to disengage.

There are no surefire way to engage, but one thing is, don't be too overt about what you are doing.  Do it with some subtlety, some class, and yet with a certain amount of confidence.  You almost have to trail the person you wish to meet, and find the opportune time to approach that person.  If you've never met that person, approach, introduce yourself, and then say something to the effect that you're glad to finally have the opportunity to meet him.  Then you need to get to the point, which is the reason that you are here in the first place.  Say what you have say, and get his reaction.

To disengage, whether it's from the person you especially wish to meet, or some casual conversation that you are having with another person, it's perfectly all right to find a suitable lull in the conversation (which will occur when you've said all that you're going to say), and then say something like, "Well, it certainly has been a pleasure meeting you, and I hope that we will meet again."  That should do the trick, but if that person doesn't get the hint, follow it up with, "Shall we move on and meet some of the other people here?"  What's he going to do, say no?  At that point, shake hands and you can safely turn to walk away.

There are some other "tricks of the trade" that others have advised.  They seem rather sophomoric to me, but here they are: 
     -  stand by the food rather than the bar, because people are more relaxed at the food.
     -  stand under the lights, I guess, to be spotlighted.
     -  never begin a conversation with "Hi, how ya doin'?"


Follow-up I think this part is quite obvious what should be done.  You need to follow-up on the contacts that you have made, whether by phone, letter, or email.  Write and file any short notes to yourself.

Finally, think about what you would have done differently or better, which is the way to begin preparing for the next one.

I hope that this discussion of communicating skills has been helpful.

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