Like it or not, presentation skills are a critical part of our role

Seven months ago my husband had a pretty decent motorbike accident. What could be decent about a motorbike accident you may well ask? Well, he didn’t lose his life, nor did he sustain brain or spinal damage. On the other hand, all the medical staff who’ve looked at the x-rays over the past seven months have gasped in admiration at the degree and intensity of the tibia and fibula breaks. I think it would be fair to say that this is not an area of life in which we’d ever hoped for recognition, but hey, we’ll take our infamy where we can!

The prognoses from our orthopaedic surgeon have continually shifted over this period with a clear trend towards pushing out the ETW (‘estimated time ‘til walking’), until we finally decided after 5 months, that perhaps it was time for a second opinion. Now here’s the interesting thing. The second surgeon gave us virtually no new information, nothing that contradicted what the first surgeon had suggested, did not undermine his opinions or ever-extending predictions of recovery in any way, but we will probably switch over to him as our future consulting surgeon anyway. Why? Because his communication is clearer, warmer and more genuine. In short, because he’s more user-friendly he is now the winner of our business, albeit he probably doesn’t need or want it!

From friends who’ve been through medical school, my understanding is that very little time is devoted to the issue of ‘bedside manner’ or communication which probably comes as no surprise to any of us and is also as it should be to some reasonable degree. Frankly, I’d rather go to a doctor who knows what they’re doing with my body and doesn’t communicate brilliantly than someone who talks a good game but doesn’t have the basic competence required. Having said that, in a perfect world probably most of us would love both – competence AND approachability; capability AND clarity.

And if we extrapolate that out, the reality is that these same preferences and challenges face most of us, whether we feel that that’s what we signed up for when we chose our career path or not. The bottom line is this:

a)      We are communicating and presenting our ideas, recommendations, suggestions and solutions all day every day. When I ask a group how much of their life is spent in communication with others, including writing and reading emails and documents (sending and receiving communication), speaking to others in 1-on-1 casual ‘water-cooler’ conversations as well as organised small meetings and larger presentations, the answer is typically in the vicinity of 50-80%. That figure varies according to the industry and organisation, but I’m surprised at how little considering I’ve asked roughly 11,500 people over the past 23 years the same question.

b)      A large part of our success is contingent on our effectiveness in doing so in a way that is both credible AND genuine. Our colleagues, direct reports, managers, customers and suppliers, like us, all prefer to deal with someone who has the capacity to do the job as well as the ability to communicate their ideas in a way that is palatable and persuasive.

Studies into the necessity for Emotional Intelligence (EQ) for which communication is clearly core, show overwhelming evidence for the fact that the higher a person's EQ, the more likely they are to perform well. TalentSmart states, “Of all the people we've studied at work, we've found that 90 percent of top performers are also high in emotional intelligence…. just 20 percent of bottom performers are high in EI”. Focusing on communications in particular, the Carnegie Institute of Technology found that "85% of your financial success is due to your personality and ability to communicate, negotiate and lead. Shockingly, only 15% is due to technical knowledge."

Anecdotally, many of our leaders agree. Here are just a couple of quotes out of literally hundreds we could choose from:

  • “Communication makes the world go ‘round. It facilitates human connections and allows us to learn, grow and progress. It’s not just about speaking or reading, but understanding what is being said – and in some cases, what is not being said. Communication is the most important skill any leader can possess.” Richard Branson, business magnate, investor and philanthropist
  • “Without good communication skills, you won’t be able to convince people to follow you even though you see over the mountain and they don’t.” Warren Buffett, business magnate, investor and philanthropist

c)       Finally, I think it would be fair to say that very few degrees or certificates include much in the way of training or support for this pretty critical part of our careers. This is tough to find specific data on, so again I need to rely on my informal surveys. Certainly, here the variance is wider than the ‘amount of time spent communicating in my role’ as we talked about in point (a) above, depending whether you’ve studied less overtly communications related degrees such as engineering, medicine or a trade versus a more obviously communications-related career such as law or marketing. Having said that, there is still often a gap between emphasis and effort in training versus real-life, on the job requirements.

For what it’s worth and by way of example, my husband’s business partner, a fellow electrician, just dropped in, interrupting my writing, and he tells me that about 40% of his time is spent communicating with clients and suppliers while at a push you could consider that 10% of his studies were devoted to considering such things and even then, it was indirectly.

You could argue of course that we have a head start in our communication and it needs less focus in our studies because the vast majority of us can talk, listen, read, write and comprehend. On the flipside however, you could equally argue that most of us haven’t learnt these skills from experts and we’re relying on our intuition and habits to get us by. That’s fine as far as it goes, but is it enough to achieve us the success we seek in influencing others and becoming a leader in our chosen field?

In light of the challenge above, I spend my life working with people who recognise that presenting has become a core part of their role as they’ve climbed the corporate ladder or as they head out into their long-dreamed-of personal business, but who feel ill-equipped to do so confidently and effectively. These are good, warm, likable people with great knowledge, skills, expertise and experience but whose ideas aren’t always heard because they aren’t conveyed with the conviction, power and simplicity required to move their ‘audiences’ to action.

This breaks my heart but it’s also a call to action because what it means is that people who are willing and able to speak up are more likely to have their ideas acted upon, regardless of the quality of those ideas, while those with often better solutions, aren’t always listened to. The onus is therefore on each of us, no matter what role or what level in the organisation, to take our presentations and communications seriously and to skill ourselves up, to ensure the very best ideas are spread and implemented in a way that moves the whole organisation, or world, forward.

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