Effective spoken communication involves expressing your ideas and views clearly, concisely and confidently, tailoring your content and style to the audience and promoting free-flowing communication.
- Be clear and concise. Vary your tone, pace and volume to enhance the communication and encourage questions.
- Persuading and negotiating: arriving at an agreement that is agreeable to both sides. Back up your points with logic, and show tact to those you disagree with.
- Making a speech in front of an audience: presenting your message in an interesting way, structuring your presentation, using audio-visual aids effectively and building a rapport with your audience.
- Communicating effectively in a team.
Body language is a form of communication that can be used unconsciously. It’s a good idea to understand others’ – and your own – body language, in order to use it effectively.
Use appropriate body language: face the person with an open, attentive posture and maintain good eye contact (look at the speaker a lot, but don't stare all the time), smiling and nod your head from time to time.
Be sensitive to the other person's body language as well as what they say: eye contact, gestures, appropriate humour and analogies.
- Listen attentively. Express interest in what people are saying and don't interrupt them.
- Good listening builds a rapport and understanding with the speaker and allows them to freely express their views. It motivates them to say more.
- Poor listening makes assumptions, creates resistance and hostility, demotivates the speaker, inhibits their development and creates dependence on the listener.
- Use active listening. This reflects back what the speaker is saying in other words to clarify understanding: you paraphrase and repeat back key points. This shows you're listening carefully and checks you understand what they are saying.
Empathy means being open to the ideas of others and sensitive to their values and feelings: trying to see things from the other person's perspective. It is about demonstrating that you understand, that you can listen from other person's point of view and reflect their meaning.
Each individual has a unique perspective which should be valued. We each occupy our own private world and never completely know what's going on inside other people's minds. Be prepared to disclose your own feelings and beliefs to encourage others to do the same: be open with other people.
Most jobs involve some form of presentation or public speaking. This could be in a small group, at a meeting, or to a large audience. It’s important to look confident, speak clearly and to communicate your message to all listeners.
Some interviews involve giving a presentation, so it’s a good idea to take every opportunity possible to practice your presentation skills.
Remember that social media, as well as other digital communications (email, websites, texts, etc.) are often used in business settings these days, so it is really important to communicate professionally when using them.
Think about how you communicate in an email: it is used in the same way that a letter would have been used in years gone by, so do not abbreviate, use text speak, or say “hi”. Structure it as you would a professional business letter.
Look at your social media presence. Does it communicate a professional message? If not, make sure you clear it up prior to applying for jobs or going for interview. See our tips on using social media to find a job.
Questioning and gathering information
Open ended questions: These are prompts to get the other person to talk about a topic, and require longer, more detailed answers, producing better quality information. They help the person crystallise their thoughts and help you to understand their views, feelings and attitudes. They may start with: How? When? Where? What? Which? Why? Who? What? If? Example: "Tell me what you think about this?"
Probing questions: These delve more deeply into the interviewee's answers, and allow you to dig down to reach the important information. Example: "Tell me exactly what your duties were at Bloggs & Co."
What if questions: These are hypothetical questions, which are used because it's impossible to work out your answer beforehand, thus it tests your ability to think quickly, and reason logically. Examples: "How would you deal with a staff member caught stealing a packet of biscuits from the shop?", “How would you deal with an irate customer?"
Clarifying questions: These reflect back what the speaker is saying, using different words, in order to clarify understanding. They may summarise and bring new interpretations to the speaker’s words. They show you're listening carefully and checks you understand what they are saying allowing the speaker to confirm or correct your feedback. They encourage the speaker to elaborate and to define their problems. Example: “If I heard you correctly, you felt very angry about the way you had been treated?”
The Devil's Advocate: These questions are provocative, and often reflect the opposite view to the real view of the questioner and can lure out any hidden prejudices you may have. Example: "I think that the Government has made some really stupid decisions recently: don't you agree?"
Question types to try to avoid
Closed Questions: These demand simple yes or no answers with no chance to elaborate, limiting the gathering of information, and failing to explore possibilities. They can sometimes be useful for quick checking of facts or to show that you have been listening carefully to the other person. They typically start with: Could? Couldn't? Should? Would? Have? Are? Is? Will? Examples: "Couldn't you have resigned?", "Are you poor at exams?"
Leading questions: These are similar to closed questions. They predict a particular answer and should be avoided. Example: "You're bad at maths aren't you?"
Negative questions: These can sometimes be good for analysis but may demotivate the interviewee from talking. Examples: "What went wrong?", "Whose fault was it?"
If you have a difficult or complex question, introduce it first with "I know this will be tough to answer so please take your time". This is more likely to elicit a considered response and doesn't put the other person on the defensive. Ask your question and try to stay silent until you get an answer: the longer it takes to get answer, the more powerful the answer is likely to be.
Confirm and clarify
- Ask yourself exactly what you want to gain from the conversation: a lack of clarity can lead to confusion and poor decisions.
- Asking clarifying questions: "How?", "Why?", "When?", "Who?", "What?", "Where?"
- Summarise the main points in simple language.
- Get the other person's agreement that your summary is accurate.
- Define the problem and then move the focus to the solution: separate the points that relate to the problem and those that relate to the solution.
- Agree on the action you will both take: even if this is that there will be no action.
Giving feedback/constructive criticism
- Praise more than you criticise! Identifying and developing strengths is more effective than focusing too much on negatives.
- Not "Debbie was hopeless!", but "Debbie made some very useful contributions but her voice was a bit quiet. I couldn't hear her very well, so she needs to raise her voice a bit in future."
- It's a good idea to ask permission: "Do you mind if I give you some feedback?". This gives the person time to prepare. Give feedback in private if at all possible, it's insensitive to do this in front of others.
- Try to give feedback immediately: on the spot if possible: it's most effective when fresh in the person's mind. The more quickly it is given the more relevance and power it will have.
- Be direct and honest. Get to the point, don't have long introductions, although starting with some genuine praise based on what the person has actually done will help.
- Focus on the most concrete and recent example. Stick to a single clear issue, and don't pack in too much criticism as this can be disheartening. Don't repeat the same point over and over: this will just build up resentment.
- Only criticise behaviours that can be changed: "You need to improve your computing skills" rather than "You're stupid"!
- Give feedback on a person's behaviour, not about the person themselves: "You have been late for work a lot in the last month" rather than :"You're lazy"!
- Don't compare the person with other people, as this can build jealousy: "Jane is always punctual"
- Use "I" not "You" statements: "I feel upset" not "You made me feel upset".
- Describe the behaviour, describe your reaction, explain why you feel this way, show you understand what's behind their behaviour, and suggest a different way of behaving.
- The best decisions are those people reach for themselves. Try not to tell the other person directly what they should and shouldn't do. Let them explore their behaviour and say themselves what needs to be done.
- Allow the criticised person to express any concerns they may have.
- Use tentative words such as "sometimes" and "perhaps" rather than "always" and "never": these allow the other person to avoid argument by saying that "always" is not strictly true.
- Keep your emotions under control.
- At the end, check understanding: "Does what I've said make sense to you?" and summarise what you've agreed.
- Include positive comments. The praise sandwich can be an effective way to give criticism to someone without alienating them:
- First make a positive statement to the person: "I think you are really trying your best"
- Then the criticism "But you need to structure your essay more logically".
- Make another positive statement to finish "However it's a very good first attempt"
If you are receiving feedback yourself, try to accept it in a positive and non-defensive manner.
- Tell people something they have done that you like or what you like about them.
- Give them thanks if they have done something for you.
- Give encouragement. If someone is not sure that they are able to do something, give them encouragement if you think they can do it.
- Describe positive behaviour and its effect in concrete terms "I really appreciate how you took the time to ...."
Example questions about communication skills
Can you give me an example of a time when you have had to argue your case and convince another person of its merits?
Context: I had a lot of trouble managing my finances during my first year at University. I ignored the first couple of letters from the bank manager but eventually I had to meet her to explain the situation and persuade her to let me run quite a large overdraft until the end of the academic year.
Action: Before I went to see the bank manager, I drew up a cash flow forecast to show how I would economise through the rest of the year & how much I would still need to spend on essentials. I also found a job in a pub for two evenings a week.
Result: The bank manager was very impressed with my figures and let me have a larger overdraft than I'd expected! With my part-time job and another job in the summer vacation I managed to pay off the overdraft by the start of my second year. I won't say that I've never been in debt since because it’s quite hard to manage as a student, but I've never let my finances get out of control again.
How have you used your communication skills to persuade others to follow your lead?
Context: I have been involved with the Parent-Teacher Association at the local primary school since my elder son first started there. The PTA organises a number of fund-raising events which have involved me in persuading people to buy raffle tickets, display posters in shop windows, donate prizes, etc. Three years ago, the PTA produced a book to mark the school's 25th anniversary and, as a member of the editorial committee, I helped to decide on the content and format of this book.
Action: The school governors wanted an "official" history, but I represented the PTA in arguing that a collection of reminiscences of past pupils would be more readable and saleable. This was agreed and we then contacted ex-pupils through mailshots based on old school registers and features in the local newspaper and on local radio. The response was excellent and the only problem was in sifting and editing the letters we were sent. I then negotiated with local printers to find the best quote and Result: Persuaded local shops of all kinds (not just booksellers) to sell the publication
Written Communication Skills (PDF) - Written communication skills are crucially important when making applications and within the workplace. Take a look at this PDF for information and advice on improving your written communication skills.