When it comes to your career, there's no way to overstate the importance of your ability to communicate. It doesn't matter if you're in engineering, finance, HR, marketing, manufacturing or IT. If you hope to get anywhere in life, you've got to be able to present your ideas in a way that connects with people.
As a kid, I was famously talkative and well read. Unfortunately, that didn't translate into the working world, not even a little. Early in my career, my writing was so bad that my first manager said I was illiterate. and the very thought of presenting paralyzed me with fear. Also, I had a tendency to open my mouth before my brain was engaged.
How did I overcome those gigantic hurdles? Well, I had a passion for marketing and sales, which required dramatic, across-the-board improvement if I wanted to get anywhere at all in my career. Now I'm sort of known for how I communicate, which I find more than a little ironic.
But hey, it wasn't easy, that's for sure. I guess that's the first lesson. If you want to get ahead, you've got to be driven to succeed and work hard to overcome your limitations. That said, here are some critical tips on organizing your thoughts, writing, speaking and presenting:
1. Organizing your thoughts
You may not believe this, but you can pretty much break down almost any business communication of any kind -- conversation, meeting, presentation, email, anything -- into these simple steps:
Know your audience. Everything starts with comprehending who your audience is or who you're communicating with.
Know your point of view. What's your point of view or opinion and what's your goal in presenting it?
Know your supporting points. What are your data or talking points to support that point of view and how do you plan to achieve your goal?
Be prepared to be challenged. What challenges to your position are most likely to come up and how will you respond? We also call that Q&A.
After learning to organize your thoughts, the first step in becoming an accomplished business writer is to read. No, I'm not talking about blogs, news stories, tweets and texts. I'm talking about books, and not the self-help or popular variety, either. You need to read literature and lots of it. Why? Because it'll inspire you and you'll learn different styles and methods by osmosis, whether you realize it or not.
You should also take some business-writing classes or get some tutoring. The goal is to learn how to present your ideas in writing as concisely, conversationally and forcefully as possible. You'll learn all sorts of tips on how to keep your writing crisp, expressive and memorable. In other words, it's nothing like what they taught you in school.
Also, buy yourself a copy of "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White. Read it a few times and refer to it constantly. It's pretty much the bible for any writer.
The biggest difference between written and verbal communication is that, in the case of the latter, you're in real-time, meaning whatever comes out of your mouth can't be put back in. So it's important to be centered and in the right frame of mind.
Before any important conversation or meeting, take a moment to have a little chat with yourself about whom you're meeting with, the type of meeting, and what your demeanor and approach will be. After a little preparation, just try to be as relaxed as possible during the discussion or meeting. Be yourself; that always works best.
That said, you should be aware of your emotional state. Not to say that you should attempt to hide your emotions. That depends on the situation. But you need to at least be aware of your own state of mind. The reason is simple. More people screw up by opening their big mouths than any other way. Really.
And for God's sake, listen. Don't just fake it while you're thinking of the next thing to say. Learning to listen carefully is the key to successful verbal communication because you already know what you think. It's what they think that you need to find out.
Connecting with an audience, communicating your vision and passion for a subject, can be a beautiful experience. It's also a rare opportunity to make an impression that might impact your future. It can either be a gateway or a roadblock to professional growth. Which one is entirely up to you.
Now, engaging your audience as a presenter is nothing like speaking one on one or in a small group or meeting. Sure, there are common elements like knowing your audience and organizing your thoughts. But there are some big differences, too. For one thing, you get to prepare, so more is expected of you. Also, all eyes are on you, something many people find discomforting if not downright frightening.
Unfortunately, most of us aren't born with the presentation gene. I have no idea why, but for most professionals, presenting is a real struggle, even after they get comfortable standing up in front of a room full of people. Fortunately, I've been professionally trained and I've written three informative posts that will teach you all the basics of becoming a great presenter: