Not another lecture on the importance of communication skills

“I have good communication skills…”

That’s brilliant. But are you really communicating with me when you say this? If I am your prospective new manager, I want to get a sense of your personality. I want to know how well you can adapt your tone and choice of language. I need to see if you are able to make positive eye contact with me. I need to know if I could trust you to speak to my most valued customers.
But this is not an article about the choice of wording on your CV. This is about communication (which if you get it right should hopefully underpin what ends up in your CV anyway).

This blog was inspired by a comment underneath an article about how people in technical industries are able to communicate not only with each other, but with people outside of their field. The point being made was that just because someone is able to, say, build a space rocket, doesn’t mean they would be particularly good at talking about it, or networking with the right people, and they felt this is a barrier for those breaking into the field. However I want to steer away from clichés wherever possible, as I personally don’t agree that “if you’re a rocket scientist you must be rubbish at networking.”

So instead I will draw on something slightly more tangible; my experiences of helping people to re-write their CV. At the risk of sounding harsh, more often than not there is a massive disparity between what the person can do, and how well they are able to tell me about what they can do. To me, this is a red flag, because within the work place all that brilliant stuff you’ve got inside you means practically nothing, unless you find a way of getting it out.

Firstly, communication skills are on a spectrum. It’s not like on one side of the room there are some people who can talk the hind leg off of the proverbial donkey, whilst everyone else would rather brick themselves into a wall than make chit-chat with someone they have never met before. There are a lot of grey areas and variations, so it is really important that you know what kind of situations show you at your best (and at your worst). For example, are you better at writing your thoughts down rather than verbalising them, or the other way around?

If the industry you are trying to break into doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the most gregarious types, this could be an opportunity for you to shine if you are able to present your skills confidently. Obviously there are some basic Do’s and Don’ts, but if this is something you are passionate about, then I want to be able to really see your enthusiasm in everything that you do. So let’s leave “communication skills” for a moment, and talk about “practical enthusiasm” instead.

You need to be obviously enthusiastic about working together with others on an important project, enthusiastic about managing your time effectively, enthusiastic about being organised, about being on time, about making sure that you and your colleagues all understand who is doing what and when it needs to be done by, about giving the best possible service to customers or clients. Don’t make me have to work hard to see all this potential in you.

Secondly, you don’t just communicate by talking at people, but also by how well you listen and respond to the situation you are in. In an interview, you may be asked to give examples of a time when you have demonstrated good communication, so there could have been situations such as:

-You had to complete a task for your boss by a certain date, and you gave her regular updates on your progress, so that she knew how you were progressing.

-You had to email an important client, so you checked that you had the all clear to do so, and that what you were asking them was acceptable and phrased professionally.

-You were working on a project with numerous people, so you planned regular catch-up meetings in case something changed.

I am sure that this all sounds like really obvious stuff, but it is important to know that communication is not just about the ability to talk, but a more sophisticated understanding of your surroundings.

Thirdly, there may be times when you need to adapt how you talk about your skillset and experience, because the other person may not understand the terminology. As recruiters, we are always asking people to explain in layman’s terms what it is they are qualified to do, and to me the most helpful thing is when someone will give me an everyday example of how their skills and academic knowledge are applied, e.g:

“You know those flaps on the wings on the side of airplanes? Yeah, well, I run a computer programme that lets me plan what shape they should be and what material I should make them out of, so they don’t break and fall off and send the whole plane full of passengers plummeting to their doom….”
This means I can connect with it, rather than trying to sift through jargon, acronyms, or (in some cases) a run-through of the Periodic Table.

To prove to me that you have good communication skills, I do not want to hear the sentence “I HAVE GOOD COMMUNICATION SKILLS”. I want to hear about what you are good at academically, but in a way I can understand, what you are enthusiastic about, how you have worked together with people before to make something fantastic, about how you take pride in doing a good job, and get a sense of what you would be like within a team.

Your ability to communicate is not something that sits separately to everything else, it should be the driving force of how everything else fits together, how you bring what you do to life, and how you help your career to progress. While there may be some jobs that need you to do more talking than others, there are NO jobs where you will not need to be able to communicate in some way, shape or form.

So when you see a job description asking you to demonstrate that you are an effective communicator, think about how you tackle tasks you are given, and how you will collaborate with your new team, rather than saying that you are good at communicating. After all, remember the irony of reading that someone has “good attetnion to detail”…

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