Getting your point across

You might know your EBITDA from your FRSSE and your IFRS 9 from your IAS 39, but can you actually get your point across successfully? If not, it doesn’t matter how many books you can successfully balance or audits you can happily sign off... someone with better communication skills will get the jobs that you want

It’s widely used as an education tool for writers as the perfect example of getting your point across effectively. So how can you ensure that your own communication skills are as effective?

Being an accountant has, historically, taken the pressure off some other social skills that we may all seek out in friends and colleagues. Twenty years ago no-one expected accountants to be witty raconteurs and I suspect they still don’t. But being able to effectively communicate is a skill just as necessary for finance professionals as it is for marketing managers, and failure to work as hard on your communication skills as your professional ethics module will put you at a serious disadvantage in the workplace.

So what exactly are communication skills?

According to Professor Preston Ni, professor of communication studies, and author of How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People ( ‘Effective communication skills include strong people skills and strong problem-solving skills.’

As well as this, skills include all forms of communication – from written to verbal and cross different forms of media, including face-to-face contact and online relationships.

They are important, says Professor Ni, for a number of reasons.

‘Most of us interact with people and handle a variety of large and small problems on a daily basis,’ he says. ‘Our ability to effectively communicate with people and resolve issues, to a large extent, determine our happiness and success in life.’

And is there a pretty simple test to take to see whether you are a ‘good’ communicator or a ‘bad’ one?

‘You can easily evaluate whether you're a good or poor communicator by whether you get along with most people in your life; whether you have many people in your personal, as well as work, life who are happy to interact with you, and willing to cooperate with you to resolve problems and difficulties,’ Professor Ni advises.

But, he adds, if you have asked yourself those questions and come up with the view that you need to improve your communication skills, don’t lose heart.

‘Great communicators are made, not born. Many of us can be a little rough on the edges when it comes to communication, often with unintended and unfortunate outcomes. Poor communication is often cited as one of the most common reasons for divorce, as well as one of the most common reasons for work termination. The good news is that most of us can become effective communicators fairly quickly, by learning better skills combined with practice.

‘You can learn from books, a good communication coach, or by taking classes on interpersonal and professional communication skills. In cases of serious communication issues, see a communication coach or therapist for one-on-one assistance.’

Another way of improving your communication skills – and defusing difficult situations in the workplace, says Ni – is using humour.

‘Good-natured humour, when used appropriately – and I must emphasise “appropriately” – can often be an effective communication tool to disarm someone's difficult behaviour,’ he says.

‘Years ago I knew a co-worker who was quite stuck up. One day a colleague of mine said “Hello, how are you?” to him. When the egotistical co-worker ignored her greeting completely, my colleague didn’t feel offended. Instead, she smiled good-naturedly and quipped: “That good, huh?” This broke the ice and the two of them started a friendly conversation.

‘Another useful communication tool that can help reduce someone's problematic attitude or action is consequence. When applied effectively, consequence can turn resistance into cooperation.’

A word of warning, though. Humour in communication can work well face-to-face but is a minefield in the virtual world. Comments on social media websites and professional networks such as Linkedin are easy to misinterpret and it’s always important to err on the side of caution.

The old adage ‘When in doubt, leave it out’ should be your mantra at all times.