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How to Sharpen Your Communication Skills

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August 2015
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Why do some people get ahead and others do not?

That’s the thought-provoking question addressed by authors Kim Zoller and Kerry Preston in the book “Enhancing Your Executive Edge.”

According to the authors, what distinguishes those who succeed in moving up the ladder is their “executive edge,” a presence that projects leadership, confidence, and credibility. I couldn’t agree more! Increasingly. I am being invited to work with clients to develop their presence as they advance from director-level to executive positions. Making that leap from senior to executive management is a quantum leap, filled with new expectations and a vastly expanded level of exposure.

If your career goals include this type of career trajectory, or your “edge” needs a boost to help you rise to the challenge of a new position, this book can be a game changer. It is organized into these five segments, each with concrete steps that will enhance your executive edge:

  • Self-management and social awareness
  • Personal branding
  • Communication and presence (my favorite)
  • Business protocol
  • Motivation, perseverance, and excellence

Below are some of the ideas and advice that made an enormous impact on my thinking about enhancing my executive edge.

recite-1p7tozuExecutive Edge skill: Reading people

Communicating effectively often requires you to be able to “read” the emotions and motivations of others. This may sometimes seem like a mysterious sixth sense, but it’s really about active listening and taking the time to get to know people. Tap into your curiosity about people; pay attention to how they typically react in different situations.

Be observant, and not just about what you hear. Notice body language and make frequent use of “listening checks” to ensure that you accurately understand what you see and hear. If you see someone behaving in a way that seems uncharacteristic, ask about it!

I know from years of experience that nonverbal cues, especially eye contact, can significantly impact how well you communicate with and influence others. (To learn how to use these cues to your advantage when you present, see “The Eyes Have It: Confidence, Credibility, Connection.”)

Executive Edge skill: Building emotional intelligence

Mastering emotional intelligence is about learning to manage your feelings so they help work toward goals rather than getting in the way. Have you noticed yourself falling into any of these habits of emotional thinking?

  • Filtering out the positive and focusing only on the negative
  • Polarized black-or-white thinking, where you neglect to consider gray areas
  • Overgeneralizations where one event inaccurately colors your thinking
  • The “fallacy of change:” expecting others to change because you need or want them to do so

Zoller and Preston advocate dealing with emotional thinking first by recognizing it, then by figuring out where the emotion is coming from. Armed with that understanding, you can move to a more logical place and replace those distracting thoughts with more productive ones. For example, if you’ve just given a less-than-stellar presentation, it’s easy to generalize that experience until you begin to doubt your ability to present in every situation. Instead, take a step back and recognize the source of your anxiety, then replace it with a commitment to work on your presentation skills so you’ll perform better and be more confident moving forward.

Executive Edge skill: Enhancing your reputation and credibility

We all know that the better your reputation, the more credibility and influence you have with others. But have you stopped to examine how your actions affect your reputation? Zoller and Preston list some critical actions and behaviors that you need to be vigilant about, including:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do: always honor promises and commitments
  • Be honest, reliable and accountable
  • Be open to others and make them feel valued

Executive Edge skill: Growing your presence and presentation skills

In a 2014 national study by The Center for Talent Innovation, 26% of business leaders reported executive presence as essential for getting promoted to top jobs, and 60% believed that a lack of presence negatively affects how others perceive you. Zoller and Preston reveal that executive edge presence is rooted in consistent behaviors that produce a positive response from others. These are just a few of the behaviors that define presence:

  • Demonstrating confidence, poise and an ability to speak on your feet
  • Actively listening and reading an audience
  • Standing tall, using eye contact and a firm handshake

I found it compelling to realize that these are the same behaviors that contribute to stage presence when you step up to speak! (Read this article to learn more: “Do Better Listeners Make Better Speakers?”)

Takeaway advice to help you enhance your edge

“Enhancing Your Executive Edge” is a powerful book that’s written in simple, straightforward language. It is chock full of helpful questions for self-reflection as well as dos and don’ts (what the authors call “differentiators” and “saboteurs”). Here’s my advice on how to get the most out of this book:

  • Don’t be deceived by how easy it sounds! Building executive edge takes intense self-reflection and effort. Zoller and Preston’s easy-to-read descriptions of the necessary skills may tempt you to think, “Oh, I already do that.” Take the time to ask yourself the hard questions and be honest about where you can improve.
  • Pick one thing to work on. As a presentation and communications consultant, I’ve observed that if you develop one area, then everything recalibrates and all your skills go up a notch. So don’t try to do everything at once. Focus on one skill at a time, and you’ll find that you will be sharpening your edge every day.
  • Little things make a BIG difference. One of my favorite insights was a bit of advice from John Murphy, a service industry executive quoted in the book. Murphy reminds us “There are no silver bullets. It is not just one thing. The real executive brand is built on countless little actions over and over.”

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication adviser specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.

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