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What does communication skills mean today and how can they be improved?
In contrast to the classical understanding of external corporate communication, communication skills play a central role both in internal communication at the organizational level and in communication between teams, colleagues, customers, the public and employees. The digital transformation has radically changed the way we communicate. Communication has become faster, more direct and more extensive. New digital communication tools help us to store conversations and knowledge and make them available at any time. But what are communication skills and rhetoric worth in the digital age if a large part of communication takes place in written form – do we still need rhetoric and communication skills at all and if so, which skills are essential in communication in the 21st century?
The Importance of Direct Communication in the Digital Age
Before we start to look at the ability to communicate, we first look at what or whether spoken verbal communication still plays a role in a modern, digitized company.
It may sound surprising, but in this day and age the importance of direct communication and dialogue has even increased. The reason for this can easily be derived from the four-page model of Friedemann Schulz von Thun.
The model assumes that each message is transported on four levels:
- Subject level (what factual information is transmitted?)
- Self-disclosure (what does what is said about the speaker say?)
- Relationship level (what is the relationship between sender and receiver?)
- Appell level (what is to be achieved with the statement?)
Under-representation of communication levels due to channel reduction
During a conversation – regardless of whether it is written or spoken language, video or audio transmission – all four levels are always addressed. The written language thus reduces the transmission channels to the purely verbal level and serves predominantly for the transmission of factual information, thus addressing the factual level particularly strongly; nevertheless, the other levels, such as the relationship level and the appeal level, are never completely suppressed, because they are to a large extent subconsciously played on.
In a direct conversation, other factors such as appearance or body language, gestures and facial expressions play an important role in the unconscious transfer of information on the other levels. However, this is largely omitted in the written conversation, so that all levels are played exclusively via the written word. This increasingly leads to misinformation, wrong interpretations and misunderstandings. At the same time, the proportion of unconsciously transmitted and received communication signals decreases, resulting in an underrepresentation of the relationship level. Siegmund Freud also recognized that only about 10 to 20% of a message is directly perceptible. He summarized this insight in his iceberg model.
But where do the unconscious contents of the other levels come from? Well, from ourselves. We derive them from the written words, interpret them according to our experiences, feelings and opinions. This effect also occurs increasingly in our everyday lives, as we increasingly communicate via digital media and less and less directly.
The consequences: Ever faster communication, constant availability and, especially, a stronger information filter that separates important from unimportant information in order to protect us from sensory overload.
The new desire for emotional content
In a sense, the aforementioned effects are inevitably accompanied by an increasing desire for the emotional, the level of consultation. This means that we become more receptive to content that appeals more to us on the relationship level and contributes to a closer relationship with the dialogue partner. This can be demonstrated by Internet phenomena such as livestreams with simultaneous interaction with the audience (e.g. via platforms such as YouTube and Twitch) as well as studies.
Current statistics and forecasts of the Video Marketing Report 2019 show that moving images such as video content, explanatory videos or other audiovisual elements will account for up to 82% of Internet traffic by 2021. Already today more than 1 billion hours of Youtube videos are watched every day. The reason is that videos can address more levels of communication than written words, making it possible to convey emotional messages and build trust. The desire to be addressed at the relationship level is therefore increasing and we are therefore much more receptive to information here. However, organizations must not only make use of this in external corporate communication in the form of emotional videos, explanatory videos, etc., but also in internal communication. Anyone working exclusively with digital communication tools and even processing instructions, private conversations and special enquiries from employees or colleagues exclusively in writing should urgently adapt the company’s communication concept to the latest findings.
Corporate communication – direct communication as innovator and motivator
Communication skills have become more important than ever before, especially in companies. In our knowledge economy of the 21st century, good ideas are no longer the only thing that counts, but communicative skills are also important to inspire other people with ideas, convictions and innovative concepts. In particular, increasingly agile structures and ever faster changes mean that the need for communication is constantly increasing. However, a distinction must be made between the various communication functions. For the pure exchange of information, it makes perfect sense to take quick and short routes. Direct communication, on the other hand, is much better suited to achieving other communication goals. For functions such as motivation, relationship building and team building, written communication alone is not well suited.
Communication techniques for direct communication are very helpful in order to activate the necessary relationship level and the level of self-disclosure. In the following you will learn which techniques help to use and activate the advantages of direct communication more effectively.
But what exactly does it matter now? Which skills should one master in order to do justice to the importance of direct communication on the one hand and the increasing use of digital tools on the other?
Elementary communication skills in 2019
Credibility is the number one priority when it comes to communication. Only with it can other positive effects occur at all. Nobody wants to conduct superimposed, played and little authentic dialogues. However, this happens again and again, especially when communicating across different hierarchical levels. Before you get into the most important communication skills, you should remember that credibility, eye level dialogue and active listening are basic elements of successful communication as dialogue, regardless of the sender and recipient of the content. The best communication skill won’t bring you any advantages if the cornerstones aren’t there, because otherwise you won’t look authentic or even worse: untrustworthy.
- Positive body language
An upright posture, an open posture and at the same time a relaxed appearance are the keys to a positive body language. Over-formal attitudes and body language in general, which do not suit you or the situation, cause discomfort among the interviewees.
- Eye contact
Even if you are a rather introverted and rational person who generally avoids eye contact, you should always seek eye contact to build relationships and in personal conversations. That doesn’t mean you have to stare at the other person. Especially when listening, the eye contact signals familiarity to the other person and shows that you listen with interest and hear him. This is a very important criterion for conducting a conversation “at eye level” in the truest sense of the word.
- Clear pronunciation
It is important to find clear words and to be able to pronounce them clearly and comprehensibly. If your counterpart does not understand your dialect, for example, this is a real problem and can lead to major hurdles in communication. Mumbling, fast or too slow talking or even the wrong pitch inhibit open and successful communication. Find your mean pitch, do not speak hastily even in a hurry or under nervousness and try to express yourself as clearly as possible. An upscale and at the same time authentic choice of words that suits you is just as important here.
- Active listening
Although already mentioned in the first section, we have listed it again here, because listening is also a skill that should be learned and mastered. If, for example, the communication between supervisor and employee consists almost exclusively of instructions and there is practically no dialogue, it is not possible to build up trust and have a conversation at eye level.
- Friendliness and a distinct culture of error
Even if the other person has made a mistake, this is no reason to deviate from a friendly manner. Mistakes must be made to learn. This must also be communicated in this way. Accepting human error is an important part of maintaining open communication even in crisis situations or when problems arise.
- The right channel selection
When information needs to be communicated quickly, direct communication is not always the best way. Digital communication tools, the intranet, social media or even employee apps and messenger tools are a great help here. But speed is not always everything. A short instruction between door and angel, a congratulation to the new generation by SMS or criticism by E-Mail is never correct. Not even under time pressure. As soon as the relationship level is increasingly addressed or is to be addressed, direct conversation is usually the best way – despite Facebook, WhatsApp & Co.
- Enthusiasm and entrapment instead of imposed pressure
Many can argue. Convincing and conveying a vision to others in such a way that it is fully supported is, however, a completely different side. When interlocutors do not want to support an idea, a concept or a philosophy or do not understand the meaning behind something, this should always be taken seriously. You should not ask yourself how you can better persuade others, but rather involve them and strive for a consensus that the recipient can support. Here it can be very helpful not to impose one’s own ideas with a sledgehammer, but to bring the counterpart to the desired point of view by means of specific questions and logic chains.
If you internalise these communication skills and consistently develop them further, you will not only benefit from them yourself, but you will also contribute to establishing a better communication culture in your environment and in your organisation. In a company, an open, authentic and credible communication concept is of decisive importance for both external and internal communication in order to remain a brand on the market.
This is best achieved with a communication culture in which honesty, openness and a common consensus are the cornerstones. The result is a culture of innovators, motivators and communicators that only a few years ago was denied a role of its own only to certain communicators. But in the 21st century we have all become communicators and thus also innovators and brand ambassadors.
Corporate communication as a holistic concept
If an open communication culture is lived in the company, external communication as well as cross-team and cross-departmental communication will also be more successful. In the age of shares, Likes customers also seek dialogue with the company, its employees and you, want to be emotionally addressed and carried away. In the 21st century, nobody wants to wait two more days for an answer, or even in vain. The communication skills of the individual should by no means be limited to direct communication, but rather it becomes more and more important to accept and master the digitalization of communication also as a company.
Communication – which includes private as well as internal and external corporate communication – should always be understood as an exchange between people. Authentic dialogue knows no B2B, B2C or even hierarchical structures. Even new technologies and channels should always be understood as naked architecture, which only gets a benefit from people who move and live in it.