- Michael Thompson
Growing up, legendary investor Warren Buffett was terrified of speaking in public. However, he realized he’d never make the type of impact that he wanted if he didn’t take the steps to get his communication skills tight. As a result, while attending graduate school at Columbia, he decided to sign-up for a Dale Carnegie public speaking course.
On the first day of the course, Warren’s nerves got the best of him and he didn’t go. Months later, after seeing another advertisement for the course, he decided to give it another shot. Except, this time when Warren registered for the course, he paid in advance to ensure he showed up.
Today in Warren’s office you won’t find his diploma from university hanging up on his walls. Nor will you find his master’s degree. But you’ll see the certification from Carnegie’s course. This is because according to Warren developing the confidence to speak in public changed his life.
Warren feels so strongly about developing our communication skills that when asked by recent college graduate Michael Hood which skill he recommends young people focus on, Warren replied — “Invest in yourself. The one easy way to become worth 50 percent more than you are now — at least — is to hone your communication skills — both written and verbal. If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark — nothing happens. You can have all the brainpower in the world, but you have to be able to transmit it.”
When thinking about successful people we immediately think about words like passion, grit, and persistence. However, all of these traits lose significant value if we cannot effectively communicate our ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
As someone who grew up extremely shy with a severe speech impediment who now makes his living by helping other people improve their communication skills, I’ve spent the better part of my life studying and observing both the words and the actions of effective communicators. I’ve written about ways to gain the confidence to speak in public in the past, but below are some exercises that will improve your communication skills in your day-to-day interactions.
Let’s dig in.
1. Develop a daily writing habit
When asked which habit shows up time and time again when interviewing some of today’s most successful people, Tim Ferriss replied that 80 percent of his guests had some form of journaling practice. The reason for this is simple: making a dent in the world demands clarity and few exercises accomplish this faster than first getting our thoughts down on paper.
Start by writing out your answers to standard interview questions. Put your favorite stories down on paper. Take notes on a book you are reading or what you are learning in your day-to-day conversations. Jot down every thought you have for that business idea you’d love to get off the ground. Or simply grab a question that is bothering you each day and get to work.
If you reserve time to write out your thoughts, ideas, dreams, and fears, when it comes time to verbally express them you may be surprised by how much more confident you both feel and sound.
On a personal note — my stutter has decreased significantly since I began writing three years ago. At first, this surprised me. But it makes perfect sense: I no longer worry about what I’m going to say, I simply have to focus on saying something I’ve already written.
2. Watch popular speeches and learn how to critique them
In order to be an effective communicator, you have to understand the ins and outs of what effective communication looks like. Watching speeches and learning how to dissect them is a great way to get started with this.
My personal favorite people to watch are Conor Neill, Seth Godin, Mel Robbins, and Simon Sinek. But you can’t go wrong by starting with the most popular TED Talks while keeping the questions below in mind when watching the videos —
- How did the speaker engage the audience in the introduction? Did their first sentence grab your attention?
- Did they lead with a personal story or did they kick off the talk by making a shocking statement?
- What was it about their introduction that wanted you to keep watching? Was it because it was relatable? Or was it because it piqued your curiosity?
Body of the talk
- Was the structure of their argument easy to follow (the best speakers are often the best simplifiers)?
- How often did they use their own stories to make an emotional connection with the audience?
- Which words or phrases did they use when moving from point to point? Did you notice a change in their tone during these transitions?
- How often did they pause and why do you think they chose those times to slow down?
- How often did they use metaphors, analogies, and symbolism to add clarity and simplify complex thoughts or ideas?
- Was their conclusion clear, concise, and memorable?
- Did they link it back to the story in the introduction or simply drive home the main point of their thesis statement?
- If they ended with a call-to-action did it inspire you to take it?
- Did they do a good job of keeping eye contact with the audience throughout their talk?
- Were they standing or sitting up straight? Was their head held high and their facial muscles relaxed showing positive emotions?
- What were they doing with their hands throughout the talk? Were they being used to make gestures? Did you ever catch them fidgeting?
- Did they appear relaxed and in control from start to finish? If they tripped up during their speech how did they recover?
- How did their body language change when they really wanted to drive a point home?
- What about their clothes? Did they reflect their personality and the tone of the talk?
Asking yourself questions like these while watching talks will give you a deeper look into all the nuances that go into being an effective communicator. Some people may make it look easy, but no matter how “natural” they may appear, you can be sure each and every one of them has put hours upon hours into practicing for their talk.
3. Observe the strong communicators in your own life
Watching speakers on stage is good, but making a commitment to observe the actions of effective communicators in your day-to-day interactions is equally effective. Every meeting, encounter on the street, or water cooler chat is an opportunity to learn from the confident communicators around you.
Below are some additional questions to keep in mind —
- What is their body language like when they approach you? Do their eyes make you feel comfortable? Do they smile?
- How do they lead into asking their questions? Do they jump right in or do they use softeners like “I’m curious” or “As someone with your experience, I’d love to know what you think about X?”
- Do they listen more than they speak? When they aren’t speaking how are they positioning themselves that makes it clear they are paying attention to you? Do they lean in when something means a great deal to you? Do they give a subtle touch when warranted to show their support? How does this make you feel?
- When they are in a hurry how do they politely exit themselves from conversations? Do they fidget or position their bodies towards the exit? Do they interrupt someone or do they patiently wait for a break in the conversation to say their goodbyes? How do they say goodbye?
- How does their non-verbal and verbal communication change when they are upset or annoyed? Do they raise their voice and try to dominate conversations? Or do they remain calm and give the people around them space to express themselves?
- How does their tone change when they have to give bad news? Do they share personal stories of their own short-comings to make the person they are speaking with feel more comfortable?
- How do they navigate small talk? Do they bring the same amount of energy into these conversations as they do to their deep conversations?
Study the confident communicators around you. Pay special attention to how they diffuse complex situations and the words they use to explain complicated ideas. Take notes as to what you think they are doing well. Watch the reactions of the people they are interacting with. When you feel that their communication wasn’t clear, think of ways in which you would have said something differently.
Every day we have countless opportunities to improve our own communication skills. All we have to do is be a bit more conscious of how the people around us are navigating their own interactions with others and adapt them in a way that is comfortable to us.
4. Record yourself every day talking into a camera for 3 minutes
According to my friend and owner of a wildly popular Youtube channel on all things leadership and communication, Conor Neill, when it comes to improving our communication our webcam is the best tool we have at our disposal.
Start by recording yourself answering the dreaded interview question “Tell me about yourself?” Take notes on the times when you got tripped up as well as the times you got something right. Do it again the next day. Then again. Then again. You may be surprised by how much you are improving after just a few takes.
After you are confident with your answer, grab another interview question and get work. Move on to telling your favorite stories and take what you’ve learned by watching talks and make the necessary adjustments so your introduction is engaging.
One thing I like to do is talk about an article I have written or further explore ideas I’ve jotted down in my journal. By doing this one exercise every day for a few minutes you may be surprised by not just how much your communication has improved but also how much your confidence has risen.
5. Reach out to one person a week whose work you admire
When I was growing up, my dad told me that the fastest way to get what you want is by getting to know the people who are doing what you want to do. Finally, 17 years after he first gave me this advice, in early 2018 I put it into action and I reserved an hour a week to reach out and get to know people I admired.
Proactively putting yourself in front of people you admire will force you to do your homework and prepare interesting questions. It will also be a crash-course in effective-listening and it will speed up your learning curve regarding how to ask engaging follow-up questions. Not only that but when the conversation turns in your direction each time you speak with someone new you’ll be much more comfortable talking about your values, experiences and future plans.
In addition to improving your verbal communication, this exercise will also help you to hone your written communication. The odds are high that the people you admire are very cautious of who they say yes to. This will force you to get your outreach message tight and explain who you are and why they should care in the least amount of words possible. Linkedin is a great place to start practicing this. The platform caps your messaging at 300 words for new connections and this exercise in brevity will force you to make every word count.
6. Volunteer to teach whatever you can whenever you can
When I first moved to Barcelona ten years ago I taught English in order to make ends meet. I thought that this would be a giant waste of time. However, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for my career.
Every day I had to create engaging lesson plans while presenting the material in an effective way. Not only that, but it was the ultimate exercise in simplification: if I wanted my students to understand me I had to speak clearly while using language they understood.
Maybe you aren’t able to teach English, but maybe you can offer to do a training at your office. Start small by offering to mentor a new hire and teach them the ropes of their position before offering to do an intimate training session for your team. Opportunities to teach others are all around us and it will greatly improve your ability to simplify complex thoughts while learning how to keep people engaged — which is a skill that will never go out of style.
Take a look around you today. Identify the people in your life who are making a difference in the world. It is not a coincidence that all of them have effective communication skills. It is the differentiating factor between good and great in not only our professional careers, but also in our personal relationships.
Warren Buffett said it best — “If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.”
Thanks for reading. If you are active on Linkedin, feel free to say hi here.