Long Tail Survival Tip #1 : Strong Communication Skills


If you’ve ever had the opportunity to seek employment through a job site like Monster.com, you may have noticed certain text patterns in the job descriptions for open positions. These patterns have to do with the relatively unconstrained online format (as compared to traditional print newspaper Help Wanted ads) as well as the fact that most of us who have posted jobs on places like Monster.com have decided to cut and paste our job descriptions based on other listings. 

One of the seemingly banal — and yet irresistibly crucial — recurring phrases that we job description authors frequently use (plagiarize) is “Strong Communication Skills.”

You’ve seen it… it usually appears need the end of the listing, under the Candidate Requirements section. Common variants include “Excellent Communication Skills” or less ambitiously, “Good Communication Skills.”

I doubt whether, in the history of billions of viewings of millions of online job postings, anyone has ever said to themselves, “Aw shucks, this job would have been a perfect fit for me, were it not for my lackluster communications skills.”

Now admittedly, some job postings DON’T use that phrase and some jobs may require absolutely no communication skills (can’t think of too many though… Second Shift Supervisor of Cadavers, maybe?) but for those job description writers who do use the phrase “Strong Communication Skills,” what are they thinking? “Candidate Should Have a Beating Heart?

The truth is, I was one of those job description writers and I used that phrase every time. And I’ll continue to use it.

Finding candidates with strong communication skills is actually pretty difficult. As you work your way through the dozens of applicants and make your final candidate selection, you often end up compromising on the communication skills requirement, especially if you have other job requirements that need to be fulfilled (“Must have 5-8 years experience in an industry that completely changes every 3 years, must be willing to be paid less than you’re worth, must be talented but not so talented that you are a threat to the hiring manager, etc.“). Besides, there aren’t many good college courses on Effective Communication Skills for general, non-industry specific business life, or indeed, general life. If a person is lucky, they  might work for a company that pays for them to attend a communications skills seminar given by a training company (subliminal plug). Otherwise, the communication skills that most people acquire will come from that other popular institution — and my own Alma mater — the School of Hard Knocks.

So Dan, why are you talking about Communication Skills, and what does that have to do with your earlier blog post, ‘Don’t Get Whipped By The Long Tail?’

Thanks for asking.

Before I continue, I’d like some comments from you, the reader.

Here are two thoughts on effective communication skills, to consider:

1) A well-informed gentleman recently summed it up for me, with just two words: EXTERNAL FOCUS. Effective communication is all about external focus. External focus is the ability to “get out” of yourself and be tuned in to your audience, their style of communication and motivations, as well as to see things from their perspective — including how they see you. It’s self-awareness without self-absorption.

2) A lot of people think they have good communication skills, but to paraphrase Socrates, the first step towards having strong communication skills is admitting that you do not possess them.

What do you think?

Benzo Says:
February 21, 2008 at 10:20 am e

i think, right off the bat, a distinction needs to be made between “strong communication skill” and “strong written communication skill”.
nowadays, a lot of otherwise-verbal communication is being done thru email. this means a good vocab and technical structure skills are needed on top of the external focus.

one also needs to specify the context of the communication. the communication skills required by an engineer is very different than those required by a salesperson, or than those required by customer service. clarifying obscure concepts v/s convincing v/s emotional support.

finally, to bring this digression back on the tail-track, the biggest element of them all: personality. what’s the point of strong communication skills when all you infuse in your crystal-clear communication is your caustic personality? some people are better off with bad communication skills!

as a side note, personality is very overlooked in hiring/job-hunting/career-picking. if you’re very body-language expressive, don’t pick a desk-job. if you’re a creative thinker not a maker, don’t pick a hands-on job. If you’re not charismatic, you shouldn’t network (have others network for you).

I am not sure personality can change much, and those who force their personality to fit into a mold it doesn’t belong, get quickly sniffed out by the target public. in an interview, the interviewer is sniffing for personality. the correct personality for the job can go a long way. those who chameleon the correct personality just to get the job get filtered out by the experienced interviewer. too bad it’s not considered good etiquette to have job postings that go “must have charming personality to lure customers” or “ability be an asshole when necessary”…

These are some great points you’ve made, Benzo my friend. I’ve decided to integrate them right into the blog post and continue from here.  Is this effective blog communication?  Who knows.  But what I do know is that I started with a set of ideas that I wanted to develop, but by leaving myself open to you (my audience of one) and your intelligent response, I’m now able to adapt the message, refine it, flex it and develop it better. 

So, let’s do a quick drive-by on your comments:

* Written vs Verbal Communication Skills — Although I was thinking mostly about the verbal mode, you make an excellent point about the rising importance of writing skills in an era of email. like t0t411y lolz0rz d00de, omg wwjt k ttyl.  

* Actually, the instantaneous nature of the electronic medium makes audience awareness / external focus an even more desirable trait for written communicators, as opposed to the great book writers of yore who, although they did well to keep their reader in mind (and the effect their wording, pacing, voice, tone, etc. etc. would have), one could argue that there is a much bigger opportunity for external focus in a medium where you can get a response within minutes. 

* Your point about specifying the context / goal of the communication is spot on.  I kept my definition of “external focus” tantalizingly vague, but I don’t want you to think I meant “extroverted,” “inclusive,” or anything like that.  This idea of external focus in communication is a matter of intent and awareness, not form or style… or even purpose.   External focus is rudimentary form of empathy which can be used in any form, style or purpose of communication. Whether the communication is collaborative or demonstrative, exploratory (“tell me about your father…”) or didactic (“repent all ye sinners…”) understanding one’s audience and being tuned in to their response is the key to effective communication.

 * I love this line of yours, so I’ll just paste it again here:  “what’s the point of strong communication skills when all you infuse in your crystal-clear communication is your caustic personality? some people are better off with bad communication skills!”  Actually, this comment related to a blog post that I wanted to write following this first one:  Long Tail Survival Tip #2  : Be a nice person.   Unfortunately being nice isn’t always the most advisable strategy for survival . I’m feeling pretty split on this matter, actually….it’s prevented me from coming up with a quick follow-up post (hence the tongue-in-cheek inspirational GI JOE video (hey wait, am I writing about a future blog posting in a previously dated posting?)).   Let’s address it briefly, then, so that I can move on with my life:

Yes, it’s true, nice guys sometimes finish last. And yet, what goes around comes around. Shall we have a battle of the old adages? Spread the love, spread good karma. Don’t be a chump, play to win.  My personal favorite: Be careful how you treat people on your way up, because they are the same people you’ll see on your way down.   It’s more complicated that that, too:  If you can put yourself into an environment that rewards good behavior instead of punishing it, obviously you’re better off changing environments. However, there is also something to be said of overcoming adversity — but only if you have a realistic shot at making a change in the environment you’re in. Otherwise you will be crushed and become part of the environment.  Your efforts to make a living in a “bad place” are contributing to the longevity of that place. These are broad, vague words.  Let’s get concrete:  If your boss is a verbally abusive person, leave.  Your staying there only serves to damage you.

Back to Benzo: 

 * Different People, Different Personalities, Don’t Be a Fake (ok I’m paraphrasing) :  I actually don’t see an etiquette problem with your last suggestion that job posters be explicit in the type of personality or attitude needed for a particular job.  You can find that from time to time, though some of it gets buried in professional jargon.  As for relating this back to EXTERNAL FOCUS (no I don’t give up), an awareness of your own personality and communication style and that of your audience — and some adjustments based on those things — will make for more effective communication.  Flex it, don’t fake it.  

Hmmm, that could make a good sportswear slogan. 

Where does that leave us?  Ah yes, the Long Tail.   It’s not just about doing well on interviews. It’s about doing well in LIFE.  Because life changes, and while you may be the Remarkable Expert today, some punk will come around the corner tomorrow and be the Next New Thing.   In the words of Cypress Hill,

There’s gonna be another cat comin’ out,
looking like me, sounding like me next year.
I know this. It’ll be a flipside

To summarize: The Long Tail is a cruel whip wielded by a fickle customer. Build some external focus and hang on tight.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.wordpress.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on February 20, 2008, in Business, Career, Communication Skills, Learning, Life. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. yah.. too bad u nuked my comment out completely and took out all my pretty line breaks and strategic paragraph spacing :)

    external focus.

    as you hinted at, i think “external focus” is just some fancy business culture word for empathy. it is empathy devoid of its emotional component.

    in the traditional definition, talking is one sided, communicating is two sided. When communicating, it’s the communicator’s responsibility to ensure the receiver is comprehending the message. This involves repetition and using appropriate vocabulary. This task involves empathy, because unfortunately, the receivers don’t quite take responsibility for understanding. They don’t give feedback.. and more often than not they give wrong feedback (“yes i understand”).

    Gladwell talks about connectors, mavens, and convincers.. but he oversimplifies. aside from there being quite a bit of overlap in those groups, another group, communicators, should be there also. they’re a bit of connectors and convincers together. communicators are able to pass ideas across people without necessarily convincing them. they have this innate ease of (1) understanding an idea in its basic form, then (2) deliver it to the others in a way it can apply to them. the communicator understands people. understands how people think, how people feel. they get to know a lot of people because they can connect with more of the people they meet than anyone else.

    but i digress…

    throughout my entire previous comment, i had a dilemma: should people who are not naturally good at doing a job, do that job that they’re naturally not good at doing? this puts us on that dystopic path where some psych evaluation printout decides what your career will be… but is it that bad of an idea?

    in other words, if you have to work on your communication skills, maybe you shouldn’t be in a communicating field. or is this wrong? (haven’t decided yet)

    be a nice person.

    if you are dealing with people, if you work with people, if you spend most of your day with people: be a nice person. this is different than “be a doormat”. this is different than “do what everyone wants you to do”. lead by example (oh leadership.. save that one for another post!), follow the golden rule. i don’t think survival is incompatible with this. Survival is only incompatible with doormats.

    second dilemma: at what point do we draw the line of business success v/s personal failure?

  2. First Dilemma: Playing to your strengths is a great idea (especially if you’re good at something that you enjoy, find meaningful and can make a living from) but self-improvement requires that you also get out of your comfort zone… those of us who can walk learned to do that by falling a bunch of times, because as children we had no fear of failure. Some of the most inspirational people are those who overcome their disabilities and their obstacles to achieve more than what they initially thought was possible.

    More to the point: I think that everyone can benefit from developing good communication skills, regardless of their field, because all fields require some degree of communication skill. Even sheep herders have to go to the market, once in a while.

    Second Dilemma: Ok, let’s kick this one around… I think I know what you’re asking, but could you elaborate on the question a bit?

  3. First Dilemma: too simplistic. there’s a difference between improving on your strengths and force yourself to pick up sets of skills you will never be good at. We’re always told we can be good at anything if we work hard enough at it. I’m just questioning the (not so) old adage.

    the tricky part of course is knowing what we are good at… or more to the point, who we really are. some people have a natural ability to know _exactly_ what they are, what kind of effect certain things will have on them.. what they will enjoy and what they will hate.. which limits they can push, which limits are better off left alone. Others need a more experimental approach.

    i’d even go on a limb and say feminine approach v/s masculine approach. (not necessarily women and men.. some women have masculine tendencies and vice versa)

    self improvement requires us to move out of our comfort zone for sure.. but that’s not quite what the first dilemma is about.

    the second dilemma needs the first dilemma to be clear. cuz it spans from a simple “would u do a job that’s incompatible with your principles” to “would you be in a career that doesn’t hold hands with ‘who you are’”…

  1. Pingback: Long Tail Career Survival Tip #2 : Be Like Siddhartha « Meme Menagerie

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