Friday, September 2, 2011

Good consulting requires good communication

Takeaway: Don’t let a communication gaffe damage and possibly end a client relationship. Learn how to improve your communication skills.

Your technical abilities form only a small part of what you need to be successful as a consultant. Because your clients are all people (at least until the machines take over), skills in dealing with people can make or break any consulting engagement. One of the most important people skills you can acquire is the ability to communicate well.

Language proficiency

Let’s start with basic language skills. Recently, I worked on a project that required quite a bit of research. The available sources were severely limited, but I finally found an article by someone who had been there before and knew what he was doing. However, although the article was ostensibly written in English, the author’s grasp of the language was tentative at best. This made a difficult subject even harder to follow, so much so that if I’d had another resource available, I would have dropped this one. But I didn’t, so I fought through it and spent way too much time trying to make sense of every other sentence.

I’m not someone who thinks that everyone in the world should speak English. I like linguistic diversity — I know from experience that learning more than one language opens your mind to different ways of thinking. But in whatever language you choose or are required to communicate with your clients, you must be proficient. Consultants regularly bring new ideas that may be difficult for clients to comprehend. Don’t let language barriers make that even harder.

Language usage

Besides clearly transmitting your message, your use of language also affects your reputability. Even though the author of the article to which I referred above demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the subject matter, after reading the first few paragraphs, I might have been tempted to dismiss him as illiterate. Your use of language comprises a big part of your first impression on clients, especially if the first contact is not in person.

That doesn’t mean you should embellish your communication with lots of highly technical or obscure words (yes, I know I’m guilty of using obscure words). Words that appear designed to impress will usually have the opposite effect on smart listeners; your client may assume she is supposed to know what a specific term means, and she might find her lack of knowledge an embarrassment and be afraid to ask for the definition. This hampers communication rather than enhancing it.


The key is to engage your audience — whether you’re speaking one-on-one or to a public gathering or you’re writing an email or a formal document. An informal, conversational style often helps to keep people interested. But there’s a big difference between using contractions, colloquialisms, and even the occasional bit of intentional bad grammar versus the unintentional mistakes that proceed from ignorance. The former keep people awake and engaged, while the latter merely present stumbling blocks to communication.

People attend better when they enjoy the process. It’s almost always good to sprinkle in some humor or colorful metaphors to make your subject more interesting for your audience. The most noxious tasting medicine can be made palatable by adding some sweetness, and even though that might mean that the recipient gets more sugar in their diet than they strictly need, the overall effect can be beneficial. Conversely, even the most fascinating subjects can be transformed into a Trail of Tears by a pedestrian presentation.

Engaging means tuning in to what your audience is thinking, and speaking directly to them. You need to listen at least as much as you’re talking. If you have a final answer on any subject, you can’t really have a conversation about it — you can only dictate what you believe, and people don’t like dictators even when they’re right. As with iteration in software development, exchanging information and ideas helps all parties explore the subject matter more fully — even if you disagree. So I find it helpful to promote the attitude that there are no sacred ideas — any conclusion is fair game for renewed discussion if that seems helpful to any party. That doesn’t mean that you have to question the meaning of existence or whether computers can actually work before you can tackle more immediate problems — but you should be willing to explore any assumptions that might blind-side you and your client. In my experience, most people usually err on the side of inflexibility — as if their answers, once concluded, should never again be questioned.

Remember, the goal is not to bring others around to your way of thinking; the goal is to find the best solution, even if that means having to admit you were wrong. Good communicators inspire others to think about a subject and contribute to the general understanding about it.

How to improve your communication skills

As with most endeavors, practice makes perfect. We live in an era where you can put content on the Web and get feedback from around the world. Use that to your advantage. Write regularly on a blog, or submit articles and white papers for online publication. Look for opportunities to speak in public. If you’re not yet ready for the stage, maybe think about joining a local Toastmasters to hone your skills first.

Every time you write an email or speak in person or on the phone, consider how best to get your message across to clients. Often, fewer words say more — and that means it’s time for me to shut up.

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