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Communication Skills

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Communication Skills

This section challenges the examiner to evaluate their use of verbal and written methods of communication. Effective presentation skills for all occasions are outlined, as well as guidelines to create and manage written messages.

Communication Basics

Two men talking while examining a document
National Institute of Justice (NIJ) (see reuse policy).

We learn from our earliest experiences with caregivers and significant others that our ability to communicate effectively is essential to our survival. Over time most of us find ways of speaking, gesturing, writing, and acting to make our wants and needs in particular situations known. Differentiating the ways we communicate to diverse audiences such as customers, family, coworkers, and friends is a natural part of this development. However, most of us are unaware of these distinctions and often describe our communication styles in personality terms such as shy or outgoing and introverted or extraverted. While these characteristics may clearly influence the content and delivery of messages, especially during interpersonal interactions, they fail to capture the essence of communication effectiveness and the dynamic nature of our abilities over the long run. Additionally, the importance of communication to our private happiness and public success fails to receive the necessary attention.

Unfortunately our formal educations, especially within professional fields, tend to concentrate our attention on the communication of complex facts without regard to the target audience. As a result, managers, scientists, physicians, engineers, and others fail to craft their intended messages so that they appeal to readers or listeners. We believe that most people are unwilling or unable to process communications that seem packed with filler, and we are probably right. However, another perspective is lack of interest, which may be caused by our failure to excite them or to build relationships during professional communications, as we often do in our personal connections. The following content reviews the necessary compatibility and potential synergies across verbal and written methods. The topics entitled "Verbal Communication" and "Written Communication" explicitly consider the need to captivate your audience, whether it is a single individual or thousands of colleagues.

Communication Synergies

Two men and a woman examining a document at a table
National Institute of Justice (NIJ) (see reuse policy).

Verbal skills usually develop early in life as our parents and other family members coax us to smile, speak, or behave in certain ways. Patterns of speech, intonations and inflections, and facial expressions are learned during these as well as other interactions and become innate parts of our communication repertoire. We typically use more informal dialogic styles when speaking with family and friends, and we select more formal directed language during professional communications. Our written skills develop somewhat later, and many of us become acquainted with the alphabet, words, phrases, and paragraphs during our school years. Frequently, emphasis is placed on the logical flow of ideas and the creation of compelling arguments, especially as our assignments progress from primary grades through our college or professional educations. What we often fail to recognize is that the most effective way of communicating ideas to any audience includes a combination of both verbal and written methods.

The concept of synergy is best used to describe the joint use of verbal and written methods, suggesting that their blending multiplies effectiveness. We learn difficult information more quickly from repetition. Repeated exposures also create a familiarity that is more likely to result in acceptance of controversial material. Processing complex ideas during a conversation with a professional colleague or at a formal meeting has the disadvantage of control by another party who may or may not communicate ideas at a rate consistent with our assimilation abilities. However, the credibility of verbal messages is enhanced greatly by the delivery and self-presentation of talented communicators. Written messages often are self-paced, meaning the receiver can decide how fast or how slow to peruse the information. Yet the social influence inherent in verbal presentations is lacking, relying instead on more fact-based sources of credibility. In the end, the strengths of one method compensate for the weaknesses of the other.

Communication Impact

Photo of an old man raising his hand in a classroom setting
National Institute of Justice (NIJ) (see reuse policy).

Synergies are greater than most of us imagine. The primary reason is that verbal and written communications are much more differentiated than we often realize. For example, we may be able to influence the knowledge base or opinions of the same person or group through multiple contacts. The initial exposure may be an e-mail message that introduces our points of view. The next contact might involve a lengthy phone conversation where differences of opinion are worked out and expectations are expressed. A formal letter of agreement that outlines the responsibilities of both parties could follow this discussion. An occasional videoconference may occur during the intervening months before a report is delivered for inspection. The final connection might include an interactive presentation using multiple spokespersons, assorted visual aids, and PowerPoint slides.


Verbal Communication

Man giving a speech with teleprompter
National Institute of Justice (NIJ) (see reuse policy).

While each aspect of the different verbal communication methods has unique characteristics, there are several general attributes of effective presentations that are common to all. For instance, positive body language is a necessary ingredient for developing relationships with any audience. Solid eye contact, enthusiastic hand gestures, smiling on a regular basis, and nodding one's head occasionally suggest confidence in and enthusiasm for the message communicated. Many presenters make the mistake of turning their backs to an audience so that they can look directly at their slides or other visual materials. This posture seems natural (and protective) but creates distance between the speaker and receiver(s). A much better approach is the "weather reporter" model, which involves standing along side the material of interest, bringing attention to the relevant portion, and facing your audience as you address the issue.

Our use of voice and movement is just as important as body language and may operate in a complementary fashion. Speakers with monotone voices devoid of inflection who stand rigidly in one place for long periods cause their audiences to daydream regardless of the topic. The volume and intonation of our voices should change regularly and strategically to emphasize certain points, create and reduce tension, and stimulate and inform our audience. Movement works in a similar fashion. As we move from one physical space to another, audience members must unfocus and refocus their eyes as well as change the positions of their heads and (sometimes) their bodies. While these physical acts are rather minor compared to more strenuous movements, they do serve to create a minor but heightened state of arousal. Of course, constant movement is distracting and speakers need to be aware of this anxious habit.

Another important aspect of effective presentations is the proper use of supporting materials. In our technological age, presenters have access to a vast repertoire of sounds and images in the form of music, video clips, still photography, graphics, and sound bites that can be used individually or in combination. Unfortunately, many speakers fail to manage them properly for maximum effect. Instead of their dramatic revelation at just the right moment, presenters may provide visual and verbal stimuli haphazardly, often without any direct acknowledgment. Additionally, their display may serve primarily to keep the speaker informed of the current topic rather than meet the informational needs of the audience. Best practices suggest that presenters select materials that are complementary to their interpersonal styles, supportive of their major points of view, revealed at the right moments, and reinforcing of their verbal messages.

A final set of considerations includes flow and timing. Flow refers to the order in which points are presented, the ease with which transitions are experienced, and the ability to open and close talks so that audience impact is maximized. Some speakers like to start with a bang and end softly, while others like to build the anticipation and end on a high note. In my experience, it is best to set the stage with compelling discussion in the beginning and change the tempo throughout your presentation to maintain interest. Timing, the second interrelated issue, plays a role in that information should be divulged when the audience is prepared to accept it. Thus, difficult to comprehend material should be described after the proper background is presented, and controversial material should be revealed once trust has been established with the audience. On a minor note, presentations should begin and end as scheduled to avoid audience unease.

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