Friday, 22 June 2012

So what are “communication skills” anyway?

Almost every job description I’ve ever received as a recruiter, and almost every CV that is sent in by people wanting to register, include the words “good communication skills”.

If every job calls for them, and every candidate is offering them, why am I writing a blog post about communication skills?  In recent blog posts and twitter discussions about leadership and leadership skills, communication skills came up several times as a key attribute, and one that is hard to learn.  However the communication skills you might expect from a potential leader would probably be very different from those you’d be looking for in a new professional – and yet the same term is used throughout.

To help people when they’re hoping to be recognised as on track for promotion, are writing their CV to start applying for a new job, or when preparing for interview, I thought I’d put together some thoughts on the shades of grey in between ‘inarticulate’ and ‘excellent communication skills’.

‘Communication’ is actually a broad skill set comprising of a range of different types, each of which has lots of sub-categories:

  • Conversation
  • Influencing
  • Negotiation
  • Telephone
  • Meetings
  • Presentations
  • Problem solving & decision making
  • Facilitating

  • Body language
  • Tone of voice
  • Expression
  • Gesture

  • Tweets
  • Emails
  • Blogs
  • Reports
  • Articles
  • Business Cases

A potential leader would probably be expected to show some degree of competency, if not expertise, in most of these aspects of communication.  A new professional on the other hand may be expected to have mastered conversation, telephone, email and perhaps meeting and report communication but not necessarily presentation, negotiation or business case skills!

Building strong communication skills isn’t just a case of learning ‘what to do’, it also depends on other personal characteristics, such as levels of confidence, assertiveness, and a positive/negative outlook or attitude.  Confident, assertive, positive people might find it easier to develop good communication skills while insecure, unassertive and negative people may have to pay more attention to the basic principles of good communicating and put in more practice to reach the same level.

Mindtools has some great advice and articles on improving your communication skills, covering everything from the 7 C’s of Communication (clear, concise, etc) to the Communication Cycle, Influencing, Body language, NLP, Active listening, Feedback and more.

As this article from Edinburgh University makes clear, communication is a two way process and you need listening skills as well as speaking skills.
One key communication technique that you can use when giving a verbal report of activities, during meetings or in job interviews is the STAR technique.  This stands for Situation, Task, Action and Result, and is a great way to make sure your message is concise, clear and focused.

First you (briefly) describe the situation and the task to be accomplished, then you detail the actions taken to achieve the desired outcome, and finally you describe the result(s) of those actions.  These results could be positive or negative – if the latter it is useful to add in a reflective sentence to show what you learned and say how you would do things differently next time.

Doing some research for this post, I was surprised at how hard it was to find examples of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ communication.   There is lots of advice, such as ‘be concise’, but few examples of what ‘concise’ looks like!  I’ve therefore made up my own, purely fictitious, conversation that might go on at any sort of workplace:

This illustrates that good communication skills are needed on both sides of a business conversation for it to work effectively. Even if a manager has good communication skills and uses open questions, if the worker doesn’t respond appropriately it can be very difficult to keep the conversation on track.

Being aware of the different types of communication skills and how to get your message across effectively, through reading or watching communication skills videos on YouTube for example, is a good start. With this increased awareness you can then put some of the ideas into practice – and see whether you get better results!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Social media; time waster?

Social media seems to be here to stay, irrespective of which platforms or systems are in vogue, and is becoming the primary way many people find the information they need. Information professionals therefore need to get to grips with it, according to no lesser a personage than Phil Bradley, CILIP President; whether to be able to give advice on which systems and how to use them to patrons or to use them to find or track information for your users. 

Out of the many systems currently in use, the two that I most commonly hear the cry ‘I can’t see the point of using them’ about are LinkedIn and Twitter. The former generally because ‘it’s just an online CV’ and the latter because ‘it’s just silly gossip’. I feel that this is a bit like a librarian of 20 years ago dismissing Dialog ‘because it’s too hard to remember all the different stuff it’s got in it’ and trying to use hard copy reference books instead. 

While anything new can seem daunting, social media is easy to access, user friendly and intuitive to use and above all forgiving, so any initial uncertainty in what you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing won’t cause any comment and in fact will probably go unnoticed. So what can these two social networks offer? Are they a waste of time or a useful resource? 


I use Twitter as a newsfeed, to keep track of interesting articles, seminars & conferences. I also use it to keep up to date with issues in the industry, and what people are talking about, as well as to have discussions with people (eg recently there have been chats going on about whether / what hobbies and interests to put on your CV, whether ‘personal branding’ is a good thing or not, and about CILIP’s policy on volunteers replacing paid staff). 

It’s also great to be able to ‘meet’, read the ideas of, and talk to, people I would probably never get to meet ‘in real life’. It’s a good way to test out your own ideas, too, and see if people agree or have a different view, as well as to ask for help! 

Of course Twitter can be ‘full of silly gossip’ – but only if you just follow the sorts of people that only have inane chatter about celebs, etc, to offer! To realise all the benefits I’ve listed, simply follow some of the very many engaged and interesting library, information and records management people already using Twitter to share information. No one minds if you ‘lurk’ for a bit (I hate that word, so many negative connotations, but it seems to be the one that’s come to mean hang about and read what’s going on), but my guess is that pretty soon someone will say something that you really agree with (or vehemently disagree with) and you’ll just have to reply to their comment! 


LinkedIn I am more ambivalent about. It has very high Google rankings, so if you are ever likely to be changing job or hoping for promotion it’s good to have a decent profile on there, so someone doing a search will see at least one positive online mention about you. It’s also very useful when you’re going for interviews to find out more about the person/people you’ll be meeting. LinkedIn also has an active discussion community for the library sector that revolves around the Groups. CILIP, SLA, BIALL and many other associations have Group pages on LinkedIn – and the incredibly successful LIKE started life as one. 

On the other hand, as soon as you join a group, you find your email inbox rather deluged with update emails. It’s possible to set these to periodic digests, but if you belong to several groups even these can get irritating. There is also the need to keep your profile updated, and the fact that you may get connection requests from people you don’t really know or want to know. 

Of course these are only two of the many social networking tools out there, and I’m often asked how I keep track of everything and avoid getting overloaded. 

Here’s how I organise my work – this may help some people or not be a good fit for others, feel free to pick and chose whichever bits work for you! I generally have several browser tabs open at once (two email accounts, Twitter, Google Docs, Blogger, etc) and switch between them all the time. In fact most of my work is browser-based now, rather than in ‘offline’ packages like Word. For Twitter I tend to let a bunch of tweets build up and then skim read through all of them, clicking on links to interesting looking articles and responding to any that catch my eye or where I feel I can add something useful to the discussion. For LinkedIn I tend to only log in every now and then, either to post something to share or to look at others’ updates for links to discussions that look interesting. 

It does take a bit of self discipline not to keep peeking *every* time that little (1) pops up next to Twitter in the tab header! It’s the same as email though – I think it’s good to switch off the ‘new mail’ ping and only look at your emails once every half hour or hour or whatever, and deal with those in batches too. That gives me a chance to focus on whatever I’m doing in sensible blocks of time. 

This blog is my contribution to the LIKE Ideas Conference Blog Carnival.

Here are details of the LIKE Ideas Conference event. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Some thoughts on leadership and management

There has been something of a focus on leadership and management (or should that be leadership vs management?) over the last couple of weeks. Jo Alcock posted Seven Lessons About Effective Leadership on her blog, where she listed some lessons she’s learnt about leadership as part of the CILIP Chartership process.

This was followed by #uklibchat on Tuesday 29th May, which was on the topic of leadership (thank you to @Annie_Bob for the storify of the conversationand Emma Cragg posted Leadership and Management on her blog in the middle of last week.

This got me thinking about my experience of leadership over the years, both practical examples I have witnessed or experienced and also the learnings about leadership from my MBA studies.  The first thing that struck me was the lack of any really positive examples I could give; perhaps this is because leadership is very hard or maybe I have been very unlucky in the leaders I have seen?

Some examples:  
  1. A company whose leader had the vision that it should be the largest and best in its field – probably a common and possibly a laudable goal in business.  However, this was translated into annual regional goals which were somewhat unrealistic.  It was clear that when managers were asked for growth projections anything not in double figures was simply unacceptable – did this mean that the leader had little understanding of conditions ‘on the ground’, or really thought that anyone suggesting less than 10% growth year-on-year just didn’t have what it takes to ‘make it happen’? Perhaps the leader had a great vision but lacked the communication skills to carry the staff with them?
  2. A company whose leader was charismatic, had a loyal team of staff, led the firm to growth over several years, and had a clear vision of where they wanted the company to be and which new areas to go into.  Unfortunately the key one of those ventures turned out not to be the massive growth area the leader had expected, and it never made sufficient revenues to break even.  This shows that even with a ‘good’ leader the clear and compelling vision they create, which people are prepared to follow, isn’t always the ‘right’ vision.  A leader can draw the wrong conclusions from the information they have or can filter the information they receive to fit their dream, and so make the wrong decisions.
  3. A company with a well loved leader who looked after their staff, led the firm to growth over several years and managed the working process and company finances really well.  However the leader didn’t tell anyone in the company what the strategy was, what their vision for the firm was, or where the company was heading.  Despite having a strong brand and great reputation, the firm just jogged along making small profits.  Perhaps this leader was more of a manager at heart?
There seems to be general agreement on the attributes of a leader – vision, charisma, provide inspiration, confidence, communication skills - I think that some of these can be learned but others you either have or not.  One example could be confidence and self-belief – you may be able to adopt a veneer of confidence sometimes, in some situations, but to put yourself forward as a leader, with a view of ‘how things could/should be’, and to take difficult decisions which may not always be popular, I think takes real self confidence.
While self confidence may be innate, having it means there are other skills (which perhaps don’t come so naturally) that a wise leader would make sure they learned – enabling opposing voices and setting up mechanisms to ensure information contrary to what the leader wants to hear gets heard for example.  In one case I can remember, a leader was so fixed on their vision of growing the firm that they refused to listen to their managers who were telling them about a forthcoming downturn in the market, to the extent they borrowed heavily to fund the expected growth and nearly bankrupted the company when the downturn they refused to believe in duly came to pass.

One of the points raised in the #uklibchat that caught my eye was that communication skills, universally agreed to be a vital skill for a leader, were very hard to teach / learn.  Leaders need to communicate to inspire people with their vision, to motivate and encourage their followers, to negotiate with partners and to promote their vision to external parties.  They need to make everyone believe in their dream; believe that the different state of affairs that they envisage is not only desirable but achievable. 

The vast majority of CVs I’ve seen over the years include the phrase ‘good communication skills’.  Beyond the obvious (written or verbal), what does it mean?  For a leader it means being able to inspire by talking about their vision (whether in a speech to hundreds, or one to one in a conversation), to persuade and negotiate, to give and accept criticism, to use effective body language and tone of voice, to give a great presentation, to gather information by asking questions, to give instructions and to praise and encourage followers….phew, no wonder ‘communication skills’ are hard to learn!

Although it helps to have read about the basics of what makes up good communication (University of Kent has a good summary on their careers siteit is only by putting these ideas into practice (probably repeatedly) that effective communication becomes second nature.  Outside of work, where trying to act like a leader in non-leadership positions might cause unwanted waves, I believe that probably the best environment to get this practice is within one of the various information groups, especially through volunteering to be on a managing committees.  Although this may sound daunting, many of the groups are crying out for people with the interest and energy to step forward and give some time and effort to help organise things, so it's well worth asking informally if there are any ways you can get involved.

Some other ideas on ‘what makes a leader’ can be found in the literature.   Psychology Today has an article that claims there is little difference between leadership and management, beyond semantics, but several sites have lists of differences between the two – including those of Practical Management and Performance Coaching International.

ChangingMinds argues that the main difference is that leaders have followers, while managers have subordinates. Finally, Harvard Business Review has a whole series of classicarticles on the subject, 10 of which have been collected together into one piece (subscription required).

Another librarian-written piece, by Andrew Burlington, Emerging Technologies Librarian in Burlington, USA, has some tips to get started on leadership straight away.