Project Management Institute

Three words to the wise

communicate, communicate, communicate

You can't sell project management—or yourself—without good communication skills.

by Ronald E. Shiffler

RECENT POLLS OF corporate human resources professionals have yielded a surprising piece of news: the No. 1 skill that companies are looking for has nothing to do with technology. You don't have to write COBOL or understand Windows NT or even manage projects to land a job. What do companies want? Effective communicators: people who can write, speak and listen. To become a sought-after-commodity, the first step is to learn key communication skills.

“Now hear this: We are going to complete this project on time and under budget. Does everyone understand?”

While most of us would agree that the edict above is not exactly what we mean when we say “communication skills,” we still encounter managers who subscribe to the now-hear-this style of management. In today's environment such an approach is doomed to failure.

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Having good communication skills is as much a function of how you communicate as it is what you communicate. Likely, you have been to umpteen professional development programs designed to improve your oratorical efforts. You may have heard some great speakers over the years and attended some dynamite programs, but the lessons learned may not have stuck with you. You shouldn't feel that you have failed.

Rare is the trainer or teacher who can individualize a program to meet everyone's needs. Instead, we alone bear the responsibility for translating the material into actions that we can use on a daily basis. Communicating effectively is as simple as developing new behaviors that we turn into habits. Skill development requires practice. Buying a new Big Bertha driver won't immediately improve your golf game; you have to go to the driving range with it and practice, practice, practice.

I believe that there are four key skills associated with communicating effectively. With a little practice you can improve these skills and develop good communication habits.

Speaking. Being a good communicator starts with speaking skills. Our natural bias is to associate good speaking skills with one's ability to stand up and deliver a speech in public. If speaking to an audience of hundreds isn't your forte, then don't knock yourself out trying to become the next great After-Dinner Speaker.

After all, how many times a day can you give an after-dinner speech? What's more important, however, is the number of times throughout a day that you interact with others. Running into a colleague in the hall and delivering a concise and effective message is also an example of good speaking skills.

How about the ubiquitous voice-mail message? “Sorry, I'm away from my desk. Please leave your name, phone number and a short message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.” Beep. It's that “leave … a short message” instruction that separates the good communicators from the rambling ones. Do you speak succinctly and clearly enough after the beep? Recording good voice-mail messages is another demonstration of your speaking skills.

If you want to improve this area of communication, I recommend a book titled How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less by Milo Frank (Washington Square Press, 1991). There are a zillion self-help books aimed at improving speaking abilities, but Frank's book is perhaps the most digestible. Buy it for your personal library—it's only about $10 in paperback. Read it from cover to cover. It won't take you long because the book has only 120 pages. Big print too!

Frank is able to summarize the most important points you need to know to become a better communicator. He addresses voice-mail, memos, and meetings with your boss, your colleagues and even your spouse-to-be! If you read this book and try to focus on his Three Basic Principles for an effective message, you will find yourself becoming a better communicator. You still may not feel comfortable getting up in front of an audience to deliver a speech, but you will be better prepared to do so.

Writing. Most of us do not become good writers without writing on a regular basis. You can read and study about writing, but you have to write again and again if you want to improve in this area of communication.

A positive sign on the horizon is the proliferation of e-mail. Call it wonderful or call it a curse, e-mail forces us to write quickly and, for the most part, informally. Tip: long e-mail notes are difficult to process; shorter is better.

One aspect of writing that inhibits many people is their fear of making grammatical errors. Somewhere in our past—high school or college—we studied grammar, but who can remember all those rules? Would you recognize a predicate adjective if you saw one? Do you write out numbers, as in “12,” or do you spell them, as in “twelve”?

Again, I would like to recommend an easy-to-use reference book that covers all the rules of grammar in a readable form: Action Grammar by Joanne Feierman (Fireside Books, 1995); another inexpensive little paperback that won't break your wallet or your arm. Why blindly rely on the spell/grammar utility on your computer when you can finally, once and for all, know why your computer isn't happy with one of your sentence constructions.

Listening. Watch any group of two or more people carrying on a conversation and, nine times out of 10, only a nanosecond expires after one person finishes talking before the next person begins. We have lost the art of listening carefully because we are in such a hurry to talk and present our own point of view.

You can spot good listeners. They are the ones holding eye contact, nodding as the other person speaks, perhaps rephrasing what they heard, or (gasp) actually asking a clarifying question about what has just been said. They are patient, never in a hurry, and never let their eyes wonder all around the room to see who else they can talk to. They focus all their energies on the person who is talking, seeking to understand the story or message being conveyed.

I haven't yet found the perfect book that summarizes good listening habits in an interesting and readable form. Instead, what I recommend is a good dose of practice. Try holding your tongue the next time you are drawn into a conversation and see how long you can just listen without refocusing the conversation to you. It's harder than you think!

Questioning. Listening and questioning are truly complementary skills and the ones most often missing in a manager's repertoire. Managers solve more problems by listening and asking good questions than by speaking or writing. In fact, I often judge my effectiveness at making decisions by how many questions I've asked instead of how much time I've spent trying to explain my decision. If you ask enough of the right questions, the appropriate tack to solve a problem becomes clearer to everyone and requires less time “selling” the solution.

Questions come in essentially two forms—open-ended or closed. A closed question sounds like this: “Did you give the report to Allison?” An open-ended question might be one like this: “What did Allison say after you gave her the report?”

Closed questions force you to decide between one of two options. Closed questions don't invite discussion or explanation. Yes, sir. No, ma'am. Right or left. Agree or disagree.

Open-ended questions begin with thought-provoking words like “how,” “what,” or “where.” Effective open-ended questions are usually short: “How can we reduce the cycle time?” The longer the question, the harder it is for a person to answer. Watch reporters on television for tips on how to ask questions. Good reporters shape the flow of the interview by letting the interviewee do most of the talking in response to open-ended questions.

I have another inexpensive book recommendation here: What to Ask When You Don't Know What to Say by Sam Deep and Lyle Sussman (Fine Communications, 1997). Unlike the two previously recommended books that can be read like novels, the Deep/Sussman book is best read in a stop-and-go style. Pick a chapter that addresses the situation you are facing, read their suggestions, and then try to implement their advice before reading another chapter.

YOUR ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE—talk, write, listen, and question—is perhaps the most important determinant of your success and the success of your projects. To be successful, though, you have to regularly practice all four dimensions of communication. Work on your communication skills just as you would a daily exercise routine and in short order you will boost your self-confidence. ■

Ronald E. Shiffler, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Business at Western Carolina University, where he also teaches an undergraduate course in business etiquette and a graduate seminar in “people skills.” He has written two books and over two dozen scholarly articles.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • November 1998

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