Saturday, January 1, 2011

The 6 Essential Communication Skills of Modern Life

By Glenn Campbell

To communicate effectively in the modern world, you have to master the current forms of media. Turns out, most of these skills haven't changed much since pre-internet days, but we call them by different names. Instead of "quotations", we now have "tweets", and instead of "essays" we have "blogging", but the basic abilities are the same: You need to be able to write, speak, take photos and argue effectively to get your point across to others.

Here, in modern terms, are the six essential skills of human communication...

1) Tweeting. You need to be able to distill your most important ideas into a compelling package of 140 characters or less. Of course, 140 is arbitrary, but the need to compress a message is universal. Some of mankind's greatest shared wisdom is passed from generation to generation in these short sayings. E.g. "There's no use crying over spilt milk." You probably have 1000s of these verbal gems stored inside you, and they guide your life as much as anything your parents or teachers have given you.

As important as it is, the skill of good tweeting is extremely rare. That's the reason 99.99% of the public Twitter feed is crap. A great tweet, like a quote from Winston Churchill, says something ironic, memorable and useful. "Democracy is the worst form of government except for the alternatives." If you can gain the skill of effective tweet writing (which is too complex to describe here), you're well on your way to controlling the world.

2) Blogging. You also need to be able to express yourself in a connected linguistic message of MORE than 140 characters, whether it be a blog entry, email, essay or written report. Not everything you want to explain to others can be expressed in one line. Sometimes you have to expand on your ideas with an organized series of sentences and paragraphs. Most Twitterers make poor bloggers because the skills are different. You have to come up with a plan and a structure for what you are going to write, a lot like a computer program. In fact, that's exactly what writing is: a software program written in English rather than Perl or Java. Instead of a CPU processing the instructions, the human brain is, so you have to understand both what the instructions do and how the brain works.

At various points in your career, you'll have to compose a compelling email or written proposal to convey your ideas to others. If you lack this skill, you'll be crippled. To develop your writing ability you need to actively use it, so you should write whenever you can, for whatever excuse. Even if your blog entry gets lost in cyberspace never to be heard from again, at least you are developing the skills of organized linguistic expression so you have them when you need them.

3) Photography. On Twitter, people say, "Photos or it didn't happen!" and with good reason. There are many things that just can't be conveyed effectively in words. It is senseless to try to describe a visual scene verbally when a snapshot will do it instantly. Nearly all of us now have this capability via the cameras in our smartphones, but like tweets, most photos are crap. If you want to communicate effectively, you have to learn how good photography works.

The skill of photography lies in stepping outside yourself and seeing what is actually in the viewfinder, not what you want to be there. Certain photos are interesting and others are boring, even if they show the same event. In the good photos, the photographer has taken control. Instead of just standing there and clicking the shutter, he has moved, engaged himself in the event, and arranged the elements of the photo in such a way that the composition is now compelling in itself. There is an element of deception in good photography (It's usually much more exciting than real life!) but by adding this spice you are much more likely to get your point across.

4) Video. There are many things that can't be conveyed with either words or still photos. Certain activities can only be understood via video. This is one medium that has changed dramatically in recent years. Forty years ago, you had to be a movie director or TV reporter to have access to film technology, and a hundred years ago, this facility wasn't available at all. Now, it's an integral part of our culture, and if you want to convey your ideas to others, you have to be able to use video effectively. Many of us have this capability on our smart phones, but few people know how to make a video you'd actually want to watch.

Like photography, video involves seeing what's actually there on the screen, rather than what you want to be there. From the same New Years Eve party, there can be interesting videos and boring ones. The boring videos are made by boring people who just stand there. The interesting ones are made by people who have actively explored the medium, made some mistakes and learned what really works on the screen. We can't all be movie directors, but we can all learn to make compelling videos that advance our own personal mission.

5) Public Speaking. As you master the skill of video, at some point you are probably going to turn the camera on yourself and want to say something to your audience. This used to be called "public speaking". It is pretty much the same as standing at a podium and speaking to an audience. Most people are terrified of public speaking and equally terrified of speaking on television. If you had to speak LIVE to an audience of sixty million, with no teleprompter in front of you, how would you hold up? It is pretty much the same when you talk to the camera for a YouTube video or when you stand up at a meeting to give a presentation. If you have gained this skill of speaking extemporaneously to a passive audience, there are many ways to use it to advance your message.

Public speaking is a lot like blog writing, in that you have to come up with a plan and a structure for your message. You have to know where your talk will be going before you begin, and you have to have a road map in your head for how you are going to get there. Unlike writing, however, there is no rewriting and no error correction. You have to get it right the first time! You are also appealing to the audience in a more emotional way than you do in an essay. You are using simpler words, and you are pretending to speak to each audience member personally. If you connect with people emotionally, then they'll overlook the inevitable errors and typos in your speech. The important thing is that it be "real" and emotional, not stiff and distant.

6) Conversation. You remember conversation, don't you? That's when you sit down in the same room with someone and communicate directly with them using words and facial expressions. As the other media rise, conversation is becoming a lost art, but it's still an important skill that you're going to need sooner or later. Technically, you are also conversing with someone when you Skype them, engage in a running exchange via instant message or respond to others in Facebook comments, but the archetype for all this is the classic face-to-face meeting over coffee or across a desk. Believe it or not, such meetings still take place, and when they do, you need to be ready.

Unlike the other 5 forms of communication, conversation is a two-way street. You aren't just expressing yourself. You are also LISTENING, and after you have listened, you are going to tailor your response to what the other person just said. As with public speaking, emotions are important, but in conversation you aren't just pretending to connect with the audience, you are actually doing it. You aren't just listening to the other person's words; you are trying to read the emotions and subtext behind the words. There's a lot more to conversation than we can possibly review here, but like the other skills, the more you do it, the better you'll get at it.

All of these 6 communication skills require a certain detachment. Frankly, most people are terrible at these skills—all of them!—and that's because they are so enmeshed in their own needs that they can't see the needs of others. They tweet exactly what they think and photograph exactly what they see without trying to understand how someone else is going to receive it. Good communication, in any medium, means stepping outside yourself and seeing what the audience does. Most people are so trapped in narcissism that they can't pull it off. They "communicate" only in the most rudimentary sense—like a barking dog or squawking bird—and they are unlikely to sway anyone to their viewpoint.

You will communicate better by switching off your narcissism and looking at your output as though it was the product of someone else. Would this be a compelling photo, tweet or blog entry if you stumbled upon it at random with no idea who produced it? If so, then you have probably created a good one. If not, you've still got work to do.