The following article appears in “The IABC Handbook of Organizational Communication,” second edition, edited by Tamara Gillis, Ed.D., ABC.
Which skills should a corporate communicator bring to their role? We are aware of the need for the critical ability to strategically analyze an organization and recognize areas in which where more effective communication is needed. But the communicator’s tool kit must contain many other skills.
A corporate communicator must have basic communication skills – that is, be able to write and speak well. Yet too many senior-level communicators may be effective on a strategic level yet freeze when making a speech or attempting to write a well-crafted sentence. Because communicators never know which aspect of communication they may need to address, a repertoire of basic skills is essential:
- Writing and editing. The ability to write well is the most critical and basic communication skill. Writing well means understanding the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation and having the ability to present an issue or topic in a way that is understandable to the target audience – whether it be a broad group of people with varying levels of education and background or a narrower group with specific communication needs. It also means being able to capture an audience’s attention, persuade and convince them, and trigger their emotions. Good editing requires much of the same knowledge as good writing, but is a distinct skill. (There are great editors who are not great writers, and vice versa.)
- Design sense. The wide range of communication tools that a communicator uses – from websites to press materials to PowerPoint decks – often involves making graphic design decisions. Although a communicator does not need to be a designer, a basic understanding of design principles can be invaluable to planning and managing this function.
- Speaking. Sometimes the focus on written communication overshadows the importance of good oral communication. A good communicator knows how to put words together for maximum understanding and effect, in speech as well as in text. He or she must be able to speak effectively, whether in a private conversation, addressing a roomful of people, or in an interview on national television.
- Listening. The ability to actively listen – to absorb not only the surface facts of a situation but the many more subtle factors communicated by an individual or group-is an essential skill for communicators. Communication is often viewed as a one-way process: delivering information to a particular audience. But an equal part of the process is receiving feedback from the audience, both before the information or message is delivered and after. In this regard, research and measurement become important tasks for a communicator.
Research involves collecting relevant information before crafting and delivering a message. The more effectively communicators can understand factors influencing an issue – particularly those pertaining to the target audience(s) – the more effectively they can craft and deliver a message. If an issue is particularly complex or sensitive, research can become quite extensive and may involve professional research firms or specialists. Sometimes the necessary research has already been gathered and might be available from a private firm or a public database; at other times, the communicator may need to conduct independent research.
Measurement is the process of determining whether communication is meeting its goal or objective. Alarmingly, this is a step that is often overlooked; yet, conducting communication without measurement is like buying a lottery ticket and never checking the winning numbers. Unlike other activities such as sales or production, the results of communication can be challenging to measure, because they involve gauging softer, more subjective outcomes: the perceptions, opinions, and actions of groups of people. Yet such measurement is possible. There are many effective measurement tools and resources available to communicators today.
- Strategic thinking. The ability to put everything together – to assess a business or organizational situation (within the context of many influencing factors) and develop a plan to implement the right combination of communication skills and tools at their disposal for maximum effectiveness – is possibly a communicator’s most valuable skill. Some practitioners call this “seeing the big picture” – moving beyond day-to-day activities to view a long-term solution. Strategic planning follows a prescribed process of assessing organizational needs, identifying goals, setting objectives, developing a solution, carrying it out, and measuring the results. It is through the strategic planning process that communicators can truly demonstrate their value as strategists rather than just tacticians who perform isolated tasks.
Beyond this kit of essential skills, there are certain qualities that are found in good communicators, some of which cannot be learned. It is important, for example, that a communicator be curious. The environment in which a communicator works, both internally and externally, is always changing, and staying one step ahead of changes is critical to ensuring success. A curious communicator is always researching new business and industry trends, technologies and best practices.
The most successful communicators understand that communication is an ongoing process, similar to a continuing conversation. It involves continually checking with key audiences and stakeholders to make sure the message is being properly received and being open to changing strategies and tactics.