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Communication skills is not just about public speaking

letter blocks showing word teachI’m going to ask you to take a deliberately low context approach to human communication.

I believe our understanding and teaching of communication skills has got stuck in ‘high context’ land. We talk about presentations, public speeches and interviews and how to be excellent at any of these. We rarely discuss the communication skills which are common to all. I believe this has been the case since Dale Carnegie and his public speaking seminars in 1914.

Low context #1: it’s not just about public speaking

There is no point putting everything you’ve got into preparing for a speech, doing amazingly, and then shortly after, failing to distil it into the 30 second version for a key decision maker, who missed the original.

We need to be agile communicators with skills. Not one-off speech wonders. In any case, most of the communications that matter in life, will happen spontaneously. And it’s not about knowledge anymore. It’s about how we communicate our viewpoint, or distil those of others. We’ll get noticed through the way we respond to a difficult question on a phone call, or summarise the action points in a team meeting, just as much as how we explain a complex strategy in front of your entire organisation. We need to be the 30- second as well as the 30-minute communicator.

We need to be resilient communicators. I cannot understate the next bit. How do we communicate with non-humans? With technology. At least on a conference call we can either hear or see another human. Enter video intelligence software. An increasing number of first round job interviews are conducted by Artificial Intelligence. AI is listening and looking out for pre-determined verbal and non-verbal cues. Do they qualify you in or out of the job application?

Be Speech Intelligent, not rehearsed

To be both agile and resilient, it’s not enough to have great content. And it’s impossible to specifically practice or ‘game’ each speech event. It’s about having a thorough understanding of the communication techniques that allow you to pivot from one set of expected circumstances to another of complete surprises. I call this speech intelligence.

It is speech intelligent to maintain clarity of thought and authenticity of self, no matter the circumstances. Clarity of thought and authenticity. Twin assets of agility, that will become your resilience kit. These are repeatable, sustainable.

It’s these assets that we need to nurture, not an obsession with slides, scripts and the mythical link between rehearsal and outcome. It’s impossible to rehearse and prepare for every single communication event. And they all matter. You may end up making your most compelling ‘speech’ at a chance encounter over a sandwich.

Debate club will need rewriting to nurture tomorrow’s communicators. Instead, invest in a speech gym. At the very least, get familiar with the concepts of speech intelligence and how to use it, everywhere.

Low context #2: students are young people

Which means they are speech intelligent anyway.

There’s a pivotal difference between teaching a student ‘how to make a speech’ and shaping another human’s speech intelligence for all circumstances.

  • How to pace yourself.
  • How to keep words and clause choice appropriate.
  • How we speak in idea frames, not full sentences.
  • How voice pitch and emphasis is generated, subconsciously.
  • How hands move in line with our speech pattern.

Agile communication techniques aside, young people may still need to find their voice and know how to extend it. Outside as well as inside their comfort zone. And whatever their voice sounds like, to accept it and to turn it to the listener’s advantage.

Your voice is not how much you can say. Or how emphatically. Your voice is your clarity of thought and your authenticity in delivery.

You say what you mean, and you mean what you say.

You communicate what you want to say, yet you keep the listener front and centre of the conversation. It’s about what they think whilst you’re speaking, not how much you know.

Your value, not your volume.

Robots and automation are going to eat away at the jobs which require low level information exchange. From here, we protect our relevance through how well we can explain complexity, argue a case, and influence others. How well we can work our way into a gap of opportunity. McKinsey, a global Consultancy, recently reported Communication and Leadership as the most ‘important and growing’ skills of tomorrow. [See Full article]

Let’s bring it back to people. In front of our friends, on a sports field, in a teacher-student consultation, it’s our voice which gets us across. As much as in the big ticket, formalised events that could define our careers. We need to find our voice and learn how to shape it.

When a young person looks at you for help, they want to learn the techniques, sure. Yet they also want your reassurance. That it’s okay to be outside their comfort zone. That’s where the life-long learning happens.

 – James Bryce

Learning Library

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