Consulting Communication Skills

     Communicating

    Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

    One of the keys to success in any industry is the ability to communicate effectively.  This week, we discuss why it is such a critical skill as it relates to consulting and professional services.

    1  – Why is effective communication so important in the professional services industry?

    • Most of what you do as a consultant revolves around communicating
    •  Consultants do their fair share of heads down work for sure, but they spend a bulk of their time in meetings, one-on-one conversations and writing reports and emails.
    • Also, a big part of consulting is developing relationships with your clients and potential clients.  It’s nearly impossible to develop a trusting relationship if you’re not an effective communicator.
    • Consultants also communicate in a wide array of methods and they need to be able to do it well in each one in order to be a good all around communicator.
    • Also, since consultants are often assigned to high-profile projects, they frequently end up communicating with the client’s higher level managers and executives.
    • The higher up the organization you’re working with, the more critical it is that you communicate clearly, succinctly and effectively.

    2 – What are the aspects of communication that a consultant should focus on

    • Written communication is one of the areas I see where most people need to improve.
    • This comes from two primary aspects.
    • First, consultants are charged with writing a lot of documentation and reports.  When you write documentation, you don’t need to be journalism major, but it is important to be able to get a point across without a lot of verbose, unnecessary data.
    • It really is a skill to be able to write detailed information in a readable format.
    • You want to make sure you get all the information down without confusing your reader.

    3 – That’s a tough order.  What tips do you have in order to do that?

    • First, like our high school composition class, I always recommend that you start with your main purpose.  Why are you creating this document?
    • Then, put together a high-level outline.
    • Try to determine a logical flow for how it makes sense to present information in the document.
    • Depending on what you’re writing about, you could start with high-level general information and gradually get more specific with your details.
    • Or, you might be able to break complex topics into logical components and deal with each one separately.
    • But spending a little time at the beginning organizing the information you want to get across makes a huge difference to the person reading it.
    • Also, if you can describe things in bulleted lists with lots of headers rather than long paragraphs, it’s easier to read and easier to understand.
    • The important thing to keep in mind is to try your best to simplify things and make it readable.

    4 – That’s good advice for formal documentation; another, more common form of written communication is emails.  What tips do you have for emailing?

    • We tend to get a little lazy when we write emails.  We send emails to our friends and just shoot out something quick to share an idea or to ask a question.
    • But emailing in a professional situation is much different and should be treated differently.
    • First of all, you need to remember that the emails you send will be a reflection on you.  You may send an email to a client employee who is essentially at the same level as you.
    • But if they can’t answer your question or they want to forward your information, they could forward that email to a manager or a larger group of people and it could eventually get into a client executive’s inbox.
    • If you send a sloppy email with a lot of typos, no matter who it is from the client that receives that email, it’s going to make you and your firm look unprofessional.
    • So I have 4 basic rules for sending email:
      • First, make sure the subject line gives a summary of what the email is about.  You should be able to explain the main topic in no more than 5-6 words.
      • Second, always address who the email is to.  You may be sending it to one person with 6 people being copied.  Make sure that it’s clear to everyone who you are addressing.  Even if it’s only addressed to one person, it’s just good etiquette to address the person you’re talking to.
      • Then, the first sentence should give an explanation why you’re sending the email.  If you start out with a bunch of details, you’re going to lose your reader, but starting with “I’m sending this email to find out why…”
      • Then you can list out detailed information to explain your question or information.
      • Just like in formal documents, bullets are better than long paragraphs.  Most people read emails on a screen rather than on paper, and it’s much easier to read in bullet format.
      • Finally, say thanks and put your name.  I know that they know who it’s from, but it’s just good form to sign off the email and explicitly let them know you’re done.

    5 – What advice do you have regarding oral communication?

    • For oral communication, let me focus first on simple one-on-one conversations.
    • This is usually informal, but when you’re talking to a client, there needs to be some formality to it.
    • No matter how close you get to a client, there is a certain level of politeness that you include that you wouldn’t when you’re talking to a friend or family member.
    • You don’t want to be stiff or distant, but you should always have your guard up and make sure that you don’t slip information they shouldn’t be privy to.
    • With that being said, you do want to be friendly and approachable.  The goal is to develop a trusting business relationship with them.
    • But there are a couple of important aspects of oral communication:
      • First, always try to make eye contact.  When I’m talking to someone who doesn’t make eye contact it’s hard for me to develop any trust with that person.
      • Secondly, speak with confidence.  Eye contact will help with that, but if you hem and haw around what you’re saying, you also start to breed distrust.
      • Finally, ask questions.  Take an interest in what the other person has to say and encourage them to share.  A conversation needs to be a two-way street.  If you dominate the conversation, I don’t care how interesting what you have to say is, you need to give the other person time to take part in the conversation.

    6 – Let’s move on to another form of oral conversation.  What aspects of communication in a meeting are important

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    • Meetings are a little more formal than one-on-one speaking.  It also depends largely on how many people are in attendance.
    • A meeting is usually held for a single purpose.  Hopefully the person who called the meeting specified that you will be talking about a specific topic.
    • You should come prepared to discuss that topic and be able to contribute.
    • If you are invited only to be informed by others in the meeting, you might jot down some questions that you’d like answered out of the meeting.
    • Once everyone on the agenda has had a chance to talk, go through those questions and follow up on any that weren’t answered.
    • But a couple of things to keep in mind in meetings are:
      • First, stay on topic.  If the meeting has a defined purpose and an agenda, don’t veer away from that purpose or agenda.  You end up wasting other peoples’ time and extending the meeting.
      • Also, take your turn.  You may need to speak up – and I would encourage you to speak up if and when you need to.  You don’t want to be a wall flower.
      • But you also need to let others participate.  The purpose of a meeting is to share information across multiple people.  If you dominate the conversation, you risk missing out on critical information from other meeting attendees.

    7 – What tips do you have for communicating on the telephone?

    • There are really 3 aspects of phone conversations: one-on-one conversations, Conference calls and leaving a voice mail.
    • Let’s start with the most common, a phone conversation:
      • Personally, I hate talking on the phone.  Maybe it goes back to the eye-contact thing, but I really like being face to face.  There’s just so much more you can read out of seeing someone’s face.
      • But more and more, we’re dealing with people all over the world instead of in the same office building.
      • So, on the phone, you need to keep in mind that the other person can’t read what your face is saying while you’re talking.
      • You need to make sure you speak clearly and take extra pains at being understood.
      • I prefer to talk on a land line rather than a cell phone to insure a clearer connection, but that’s not always possible.
      • Also, try to find a place to talk where there are as few noisy distractions as possible.  Any background noise like people in a hallway or a copy machine running nearby can be amplified on a phone call.  If you can’t go to an office or conference room where you can close the door, try to at least find a quite place.
      •  In addition to one-on-one conversation, you also use the phone for conference calls.
        • All of what I just said for a one-on-one applies, you definitely want to find a quiet place to do the call.
        • Often times, you call into a conference call just to listen in for much of it.  When that’s the case, you can put it on mute, but I still think the fewer the distractions the better.
        • Also, I’ve noticed that a lot of people call into conference calls and multitask.
        • I’ve heard keyboards tapping and all kinds of noises that indicate that.
        • I also have seen situations where someone is asked a question and has to ask for it to be restated because they were busy reading or typing or something.
        • So my advice there is don’t multi-task.  Turn off your monitor, close your laptop, clear your desk, do whatever you need to do.
        • But if you’re supposed to be in the meeting, pay attention.  If it’s a waste of your time, consider not attending or getting uninvited.
        • And the last area of phone conversations is voice mails
          • A voice mail should just give a summary of what you called for and the basics on how to get back to you.
          • I’ve gotten voice mails that ramble on for what seems like 10 minutes and I’m trying to figure out what the call is even about.
          • Then I’ve gotten ones where someone calls and didn’t expect to get voice mail.  They stammer around and try to leave a message and end up saying “Oh, just call me when you get a chance”.
          • My advice is, before you make a phone call, think about why you’re calling and what you’re going to say.  That will help you introduce your call, when someone actually answers.
          • And it will give you a topic sentence to leave in a voice mail.
          • Also, remember to tell them who you are in case they don’t recognize your voice, and make sure to leave your contact information so the person can get back for any follow up information.

    8 – We’ve discussed written and oral communication, what about listening as a communication skill?

    • Listening is one of the most important aspects of communication and probably the most ignored.
    • We live in a world with more distractions than ever before.  We have our computers and phones constantly beeping and vibrating with the latest message or stock market update.
    • We also have become a multitasking world.  I watch my kids as they watch TV, text, check Facebook and Twitter and hold a conversation all at the same time.
    • So we get used to hearing people talk while our eyes are glued to a portable device, but they aren’t really listening.
    • This is particularly critical when you’re talking to a client.  It’s important to remove any distractions and look straight at the speaker. You’d be amazed at the additional information you’ll glean from the conversation.
    • Also, I would suggest active listening.  This involves restating their main points to make sure you have it and asking follow-up questions if you aren’t sure.
    • If you just sit there nodding your head, you can have a tendency to fade off and lose your focus on what they’re saying.
    • But restating and asking questions forces you to listen and be engaged in what they say.

    9 – Are there any non-verbal aspects of communication that someone should be aware of?

    • Body language says a lot more than most people realize.  I remember a boss I had once.  Every time I went to talk to him, I would get about a minute into the conversation and he would look at his watch.  And he would do it every so often while I was talking.  The non-verbal queue was that he was too busy to be sitting here wasting his time talking to me.
    • He didn’t say a word, but the message was deafening.
    • Another non-verbal queue is your posture, both while you’re sitting and standing.  If you’re very relaxed and nonchalant, you give off the impression that you don’t care,
    • But if you’re leaning toward the person you’re talking to and nodding, it shows that you’re interested and you’re listening.
    • I’ve already talked a lot about eye contact, but it’s part of the non-verbal communication that shows people that you want to talk to them.
    • One other aspect of non-verbal communication is the volume that you speak.  If you’re very quiet, it gives off the impression that you’re intimidated and that makes the people you’re talking to uncomfortable.  If you’re too loud it can be intimidating and make them just as comfortable.
    • One other note on volume, people tend to increase their volume when they’re on the phone. And I’ve seen it get even louder on a conference call.  It’s important to regulate your volume appropriately so that people are focusing on what you’re saying rather than how loud or soft you’re saying it.

    10 – Rising above the basic rules, what do you think makes someone a good communicator

    • Confidence is key.  Don’t be intimidated by an individual or group but don’t be intimidating either.  I think communication should be a very cooperative thing.  Make sure that you contribute but allow a balance of contribution from everyone.
    • Also, practice.  You can’t be a good communicator if you don’t do it on a regular basis and get comfortable with it.
      • That goes just as much for speaking as for writing; you should get practice writing and always be in the habit of proofreading whatever you write.  Whether it’s a formal document or a simple email.
      • Think about how you might be perceived.  You don’t want to second guess yourself, but be empathetic with the people you’re communicating with and try to imagine what their needs are before you start communicating.
      • Finally, I think it’s important to know proper grammar. In any communication, if you use improper grammar, you’re more likely to lose credibility

    11 – Any final thoughts on communication

    • Just a couple of points:
    • Know your audience.  Try to talk to them in a way that makes them comfortable and welcome.  That’s the best way to develop a strong relationship with them and instill trust.
    • Be yourself and go with your instincts
      • Don’t try to use big words to impress people and don’t second guess yourself.  If you’re afraid to ask a dumb question, you’ll most likely hurt yourself more by not asking it.
      • If a concept comes up that you don’t know and you don’t ask about it, the next time it comes up, you’re even more lost.
      • I’ve always said that the longer you wait to ask the dumb question, the dumber the question becomes.
      • Finally, one tip that goes for any type of communication, whether you’re talking, writing an email or preparing a formal document; and that is have a point.
        • It can be infuriating when people ramble on and talk forever without ever saying anything.
        • Time is very precious.  And in consulting, you’re usually charging your client’s by the hour.  So wasting their time and yours is going to create a very bad reflection on you and your firm, and it could end up costing your business.
        • Learn how to be concise and to the point

    Next week: The Professional behavior of a consultant

     

    Credits:

    Images: www.freedigitalphotos.net

    Music: Kevin MacLeod – Incompetech.com

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