Remodeling your communication skills

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You know what you mean when you speak. Make sure other people know, too.

October 01, 2001

Miscommunication leads to uncertainty and unfulfilled expectations, obstacles on the path to success. Understanding that communication is a skill to be learned and improved is the first step in mastery. Our discussion last month centered on written communications and included the five W’s and H (who, what, why, where, when and how) to convey a message clearly. Now we’ll talk about ... well, talking.

Oral communication skills add the nuances of intonation, volume, gesture and tempo in conveying your meaning. These are important tools in a management belt; you and your employees should master them. The
costs of inefficiency in this skill area are lost profits and lost confidence in your company.

Speaking skills also help define your company character. Do you do what you say you will do? Are verbalized expectations fulfilled? The answer should be yes to both questions. Success is due as much to communicating reasonable expectations as to producing timely, expert work.

There are multiple audiences for oral communications, but they share the same need for clarity. Over time, internal audiences of production, sales and office staff can develop a "shorthand" through which some details can be assumed. One example is the "who" responsible for a particular task, since all employees should know their roles in the company.

But assumptions can lead to problems. I recently erred in giving spoken instruction to a seasoned employee on how to set a 36-inch door in a 48-inch opening in a 2-foot-thick stone wall. I told him to "set it in the middle," but that was not complete enough for clarity. I got the door centered in the opening but flush to the front. I meant and should have said, "Set it hinged on the left leg of the jamb, 12 inches back from the front plane, and fill the remainder with a solid panel." Surely a quick sketch would have been even more useful in eliminating the misunderstanding, which is why I suggest using at least two communication channels to convey any important point.

For an external audience, all details must be covered. You are speaking to people who probably have a blank slate with no assumptions pre-programmed. Customers, trade contractors and the local building inspector all need to know exactly who is doing what, why it’s important, where they are expected and when they should expect completion.

Before you speak, ask yourself, "What does this listener need to know?" This will help you focus your message and minimize the chatter that permeates conversations. If you speak 300 words to convey a point of 30 words, 90% of what you said is relatively unimportant. But which 90%? Letting the listener figure that out wastes time and increases the risk of mistakes. Adding distractions to a message is nearly as troublesome as omitting critical pieces of information.

Speaking is a business skill as important as cutting jack rafters or coding job costs. As such, it should be learned, analyzed and improved. Asking yourself quick questions about your words can help you clarify your message:

  • Does the listener consistently understand your message? Brevity and relevance help keep a listener attentive.
  • Does your tone suit your message? Intonation infuses words with emotion and can convey concern or commitment.
  • Are you making direct eye contact with the listener? Eye contact personalizes and intensifies communication.

    To implement an oral-communication system, identify who tells whom what as an extension of company policy. Should a lead carpenter promise a subcontractor a check on Friday? Can a helper tell a homeowner he will be back tomorrow to clean and vacuum, or should the lead carpenter be in control of such customer communications?

    There are no right or wrong answers to these examples, but there should be some answers. Otherwise everyone is making promises, creating the potential for unfulfilled expectations. Excessive communications can cloud an otherwise precise message.

    Have you ever cringed to learn that an employee told a homeowner unnecessary information such as "This is the first time I’ve tried this" or "The boss is golfing today but will be back tomorrow"? Maybe it was not his error but a lack of appropriate company direction on verbal communications. Delegating responsibility by channeling communication through a designated agent of the company is a great idea when done consistently and when backed up by the owner. Empowerment has risks, but growth mandates that more people than just the principal of the company can move work forward though effective communications.

    Understanding the flow is the first step to managing communications for optimum efficiency. Who are the players, and who are the audiences?

    A clearly stated spoken message can reduce inefficiencies and minimize loss. Confidence and certainty in a sales setting can land more profitable jobs. Consistency in a production setting can increase productivity. The business benefits of effective communication accrue with every conversation, as customer contacts become lead generators for future business.

    Improving spoken communication

    Several Web sites can help enhance speaking skills:

  • www.settelen.com/justtalk.htm

    This e-book covers every facet of spoken communication in situations ranging from job interviews to television interviews.


  • The online tutorial focuses on public speaking and includes links to other sites on public speaking, including the History Channel’s audios of famous speeches.

  • www.presentingsolutions.com/effectivepresentations.html

    This site offers the how-to of effective presentations, covering topics such as organizing the presentation, visual aids and the appropriate use of humor.

    You can order any of the following books through HousingZone at www.housingzone.com:

  • Writing Great Speeches: Professional Techniques You Can Use by Alan M. Perlman
  • The Quick & Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie
  • Presentations: Proven Techniques for Creating Presentations that Get Results by Daria Price Bowman
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