Whether you want to be in business, information technology or any other field, good communication skills will help you succeed. According to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, only 15% of financial success comes from knowledge or technical skills. The other 85% comes from an individual's ability to effectively communicate, negotiate, and lead, Forbes reported.
That's why the number one soft skill that employers say they are looking for is good communication skills, followed by a competitive spirit, a team-player mentality and problem solving skills, according to another Forbes article.
Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture North America, recently said in a CNBC interview: "I think people underrate the importance of investing in your communication skills as a way to progress in your career."
The good news is that business communication skills are not innate; they can be learned. Whether you need to hone your presentation skills or beef up your written communications, there are steps you can take to immediately strengthen these skills to stand out in the workplace, said Karen Wilkinson, communication faculty lead at Southern New Hampshire University.
1. Learn How to Listen
Most people underestimate the role of nonverbal communication, or body language. According to one study, body language is responsible for 55% of how listeners perceive a speaker. Likewise, active listening plays a huge role in how well we understand and absorb what a person is saying, Wilkinson said. It's important not only to listen to the words someone is saying, but to listen for tone as well, and what makes the speaker passionate about the subject.
"So often we listen to respond," she said. "If we take a more active role we will be much better listeners."
For example, when you engage in active listening, you are able to paraphrase or summarize the message, develop thoughtful questions to seek clarification, and wait before you offer an opinion.
She also urges listeners to spend a few minutes absorbing a message before offering suggestions or asking questions. "It's okay to say, 'let me think about it for a minute and get back to you.'" she said.
2. Perk Up Your Presentations
In a world of email, texts and instant messages, it's easy to ignore your speaking skills until you are in front of a podium. However, employees need to know how to speak well person-to-person and in front of small or large groups. Part of improving that skill is practice, Wilkinson said, and knowing what you are going to say, preparing how you'll say it and eliminating things that distract the listener from the main points. When presenting, Wilkinson said it's best to tell a story and take the audience on the journey with you.
"People are able to remember a short story much more quickly than bullet points on a slide," she said. "If you can make them an active participant it helps captivate the audience and draws them in."
While visuals complement a good presentation, Wilkinson urges presenters not to rely on slides. Practicing in front of a trusted peer is a great way to get feedback, she said. "One person can't always think of everything and we need to be more open to receiving suggestions," she said.
3. Master Talking on the Telephone
Phones aren't primarily used to make phone calls anymore, and Millennials much prefer texting to talking, according to Forbes. Still, showing you can handle phone conversations well is a key part of business communication. The person on the other end of the telephone can't see your expression or read an emoji, which is why it's so important to pay attention to your tone of voice, Wilkinson said. Whether you are speaking with a customer or a colleague, you should show respect and courtesy in the tone of your voice, she said.
"A lot of (telephone) coaching can come through an organization, but you really need to know how to handle an impromptu call when someone is calling you about a less-than-positive situation," she said. "You need to know how to remain calm and let the caller know you are listening and that you care."
Wilkinson said callers especially want to be able to tell their story to those working in customer service or public relations roles, and it is up to listeners on the receiving end to understand their plight and take appropriate action.
"This is where conflict management skills shine through - having a strategy in place to respond when someone is upset is a huge part of communication brand protection in a world in which customers can broadcast unpleasant customer service experiences through social media," Wilkinson said.
4. Write More Effective Emails
According to Entrepreneur, email is the most widely used tool for business communication at the workplace. Employees read and compose between 50 to 60 emails a day on an average. Poorly written, unclear, misleading or ineffective emails reduce productivity and can leave a poor impression on the reader.
Think before you hit send. Understand that spell check doesn't always pick up mistakes. Learn how to proofread what you write. Wilkinson said all these rules are important to think about each time you send an email. Oftentimes, employees are in a hurry to respond and neglect professionalism. Other tips: Less is more. Edit for clarity and understanding. Know what you want to say and what information you are looking for.
"Share information with clarity but also include a level of diplomacy in all written internal communications," Wilkinson said.
Equally important is understanding the situations that require you to speak to someone in person rather than relying on email.
"As a culture, we've learned to tweak before we send, and we've lost the art of face-to-face conversation," she said.
5. Collaborate Well with Remote Teams
Chances are, not everyone on your team sits in cubicles adjacent to you. A forecast of employment trends by the World Economic Forum called flexible work, including virtual teams, "one of the biggest drivers of transformation" in the workplace, while a Gallup poll found that 37% of respondents have already worked virtually. That means that employees must develop communication skills that can help them bridge the gap between on-site and remote workers. Wilkinson said the ability to work in teams is one skill that can't be overemphasized, as it is rare for individuals to work in a vacuum.
"When you work with someone remotely, there can be a disconnect. That is where compassion and empathy come in. If you can engage with people at all levels, that's a strong asset," she said.
6. Don't Neglect Critical Software Skills
Most employees are expected to come to work with, at minimum, a proficiency in Microsoft Office programs, Wilkinson said. Understanding how to create presentations, documents and infographics is critical to successfully creating, editing and displaying messages, she said. It's also important for employees to be able to share and manage files with their teammates.
"In our classes, we prepare students and teach them how to use these tools, so once they hit the job market, they are really able to soar," she said.
It's not uncommon for employees in today's communication jobs to wear many hats - from writer to social media strategist to designer, for example.
"A communicator has his or her fingers in every pot. You are going to need to know how to create a graphic, respond to a crisis, write a blog, or create a web page," she said. "Communication is tied to technology and technology is ever-evolving."
No matter what field you work in, mastering these critical communication skills will help you stand out in the office.
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks '11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.