NEW YORK (CNNfn) - How many times have you asked an employee to write a proposal or report, but he or she comes back with something totally off the mark? You wonder if he or she just messed up, or perhaps didn't understand your instructions.|
If better communication is on your list of New Year's resolutions, here's some good advice from speech and communications experts who counsel business owners and executives.
"Most people have the ability to be a good listener if their mind isn't cluttered, they agree with what's being said, or if they like the person they're with," said Beverly Inman-Ebel, a speech pathologist and owner of a company called Talk Listen Communicate in Chattanooga, Tenn. "But if any one of these things isn't happening, it's difficult to listen accurately."
Your body language, accent, word choice and even the way you swallow may be an obstacle to better communication, according to Inman-Ebel, who works with people at big and small companies.
"I can be too direct or controversial in conversation, so we worked on limiting that," said Anne Dozier, a manager of electronic business at Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) and a client of Inman-Ebel.
"She teaches you how to assess people, including yourself," she said. "Within five minutes of meeting a person, you should know exactly how they want to be communicated with."
Companies smaller than Coca-Cola also rely on Inman-Ebel's expertise. An accounting firm in Dalton, Ga., hired her to help improve communications between its accountants and their clients.
"It's either right or wrong with accountants, because we're all task-oriented," said Gordon Morehouse, president of the firm Morehouse, Gilbert, Carpenter and Watkins. "But she taught us to blend the facts with other issues like fostering a good environment, listening to people, not cutting them off and encouraging more personal discussion."
Improving your communications
Inman-Ebel has some helpful tips for everyone interested in better business communication:
- Listen more than you talk. You have about two seconds to make the decision to listen. If you want to postpone the conversation, you've got to say that right away.
- Ask open questions starting with "how" or "what." The "why" question usually puts people on the defensive, so avoid it.
- Be informative rather than opinionated. Avoid saying "no, it won't work," and try saying why it hasn't worked.
- Give informative compliments. Describe what the person did, and then, tell him or her specifically how it helped the company.
Changing the way you communicate won't happen overnight. In fact, Inman-Ebel says if you work on something every day, it takes 70 days to change your speech or behavior. She suggests telling your colleagues and friends that you are trying to improve your communication skills.
"Otherwise, they're going to be suspicious about why you're acting differently," she said.
Facing the outside world
Once you've learned how to communicate better with employees, it's time to deal with the outside world. Being your company spokesperson often means giving speeches, which terrifies most business owners.
"People assume that because they communicate on a daily basis, they should be able to speak in front of people without any preparation," said Lilyan Wilder, a New York City-based author and speech coach.
Wilder suggests preparing a "mini-speech," a short statement with a beginning, middle and an end, leaving intentional gaps for dialogue with the audience.
"Most people talk and then wait for the audience to ask questions -- I disagree," Wilder said. "I think that when you give a speech, you should be eager to be interrupted."
According to Wilder, as soon as you begin speaking, you should wait for a response from your audience.
"You want to keep getting responses throughout your presentation," Wilder said. "The more give and take and the more interactive it is, the better." This kind of conversational dialogue also helps alleviate the nerves most people experience, Wilder said.
Inman-Ebel, the business communication expert, believes a fear of public speaking is related to a poor self-image.
"There are a lot of people who believe that they're not worthy, that they don't have a talent for speaking in front of people," Inman-Ebel said. "I've seen so many people turn that around because they simply stopped programming themselves negatively."
Credit where credit is due
Positive communication is one of the top five reasons people stay or leave a company, says Gay Alberts Ruby, a social worker and communication skills workshop facilitator in Milwaukee.
"If they don't feel appreciated, they're not going to stay with the job," Ruby said.
If keeping good employees is also on your list of things to improve, learn how to praise.
"Praising people doesn't mean you have to give them a raise," Ruby said. "A little note can say for that day, for that project, you are happy with what they did -- and your employees deserve to know that."
To do this, Ruby created "Communicare Cards," small notes that say things like, "Thank You," "Well Done," "Congratulations" and "Good Teamwork." Ruby came up with the idea for the cards while she was doing something totally unrelated to business.
"I began to think about alternative forms of communication when I volunteered at parent support groups," Ruby said. "Divorced parents used to ask me how they could communicate more with their children. I realized we don't have to speak face to face all the time."
Around the office, people appreciate verbal recognition, especially if it's shared in front of others, Ruby said. But a written note is powerful, because it can be kept.
"I believe that people hold on to notes," Ruby said. "I do."
Ruby sells her pack of 48 compliment cards for $3. For information, contact her at: email@example.com.
-- Reporting by Julie Neal