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What is effective communication?



by Daniel Kingsley

tin-can-telephone-effective-communication-shutterstock_19349479-copyThe internet is amazing in many respects. It allows us to communicate in ways that were previously unimaginable. It also provides us with information which can often surprise us.

So when I was looking for the topic for this blog piece, I decided to allow myself to be surprised – I let Google choose.

More accurately, I decided I would choose the subject by answering a question about our area of expertise that large numbers of people told Google they wanted to know the answer to.

When I checked the statistics as to what were the most popular questions, I was delighted to find that last month around 250,000 people around the world were asking the question “what is effective communication?”

This was really exciting to me, mainly because it’s a great question!

It’s a great question because it’s powerful, simple and the answer really matters.  

I’m going to address it in the context of a speaker talking to an audience (as that’s our speciality at Presence), though many of the points apply equally to one to one personal communications or written communication.  Let’s get started…


Effective Communication – a starting point

If you’re a person asking “what is effective communication?”, I’m guessing that it may be because you are someone with something to say.  Perhaps there is some information that you want to tell the world, perhaps there is something that you are passionate about that you want to persuade people of, perhaps there is an insight that you’ve had that you wish to share.

It also follows that there is probably some individual or group in mind that you’d like to convey these ideas to – in other words as well as a speaker there is an intended audience.

So let’s imagine that by luck or design, you find yourself as a speaker in a room with exactly the people you want to communicate with – the speaker has met the audience.  What happens next?


The audience is listening…

Although you as a speaker have got something that you want to say, and that’s great, it’s not hard to see that this is less than half the story.

The audience have come along with an idea or a need of what they want to hear.

If you are going to achieve effective communication with your audience, you need to know what they need to know and what they want to know.  And then, in that context, you need to decide what you’re going to tell them.

To give the example of this piece of writing:  I’m guessing that as someone reading an article entitled “What is effective communication?” you’re interested in finding out what effective communication is, and more importantly how you can communicate more effectively.  I won’t have done my job unless I make sure that I satisfy those needs in this, my communication with you.

If I were delivering a talk to you as part of an audience, I’d want to ask myself some the following questions (and probably a number of others):

  • Who are the people in the room?
  • What is their existing level of knowledge?
  • Is there a big variation between audience members in their level of knowledge?
  • Are they all likely to have the same point of view on the subject I’m speaking about?
  • Are they there out of choice?
  • What would they like to get out of my presentation?

In other word – who are my audience and what do they want?

In one of the exercises we teach, we take it a step further, and invite speakers to put themselves into the position of one or more audience members – perhaps the person they most want to convince, or the most sceptical person in the room.  If you’re planning a talk, it’s good to imagine that you are this man or woman.  How old are they?  What is their job?  What’s their background?  What do they want to learn?  What don’t they want to hear in this talk?  It can be amazingly revealing to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and to see the world from their point of view.  Thinking about your audience’s needs is something that many speakers don’t do, but something that the most effective communicators always do.

If you have the luxury of being able to have a conversation with your audience before you speak, you may well want to check with them that you’ve correctly understood their needs.  For instance you might say: “I’m imagining you’ve come here today because you’d like to become more effective communicators and you’re looking for some easy tools to help you do that.  Is that right?”.  And then listen for the answer.  If they all tell you that they’ve come for a talk on the mating habits of owls, you may well need to do some spontaneous expectation management or serious reframing of your subject.


It’s not a one shot deal

But it doesn’t stop at the planning stage or even the start of the talk.  The relationship between an effective speaker and audience is constantly alive and changing.  If you’re to be an effective communicator you need to constantly be aware of where  your audience is at.  And this takes us to one of the most under-rated skills for speakers – listening.

If you’re a great communicator you are constantly listening to those you are communicating with.  Of course you’re listening when they are speaking, or if you’ve asked them a question, but more importantly you’re paying attention to them whilst you are speaking.  Even is you are speaking you are gathering information from the room as a whole – are the people sleepy or awake, engaged or bored, excited or antagonistic.

And this takes me to what appears to me to be the heart of this matter.  Effective communication requires a constant connection between the people in the equation.  And connection is a two way street.  As you speak you are paying attention to the audience.  As you see your audience, you are also allowing them to see you.

For me, the essence of effective communication is the understanding that we are all in this together.  I may be the one standing up front and you may be the one sitting down, but this is a joint enterprise, and it’s only going to work really well if we both get what we want and what we need.  I tell you what I want or need to tell you and you get to hear what you need to hear.  It’s a dance between speaker and audience, and it’s alive.

We teach a number of ways of building this sort of connection with your audience but it can all be summed up with the phrase “relational presence”.  You are really there with the ones you are communicating with, and you are in relationship, open to see and be seen.

If you are clear about what it is you want to say, clear about what it is your audience want to know and you remember that the relationship is a co-created living thing, you’ll be well on the way to being a great communicator.

And on the days when I manage it, I know it’s a joy.  I wish that joy for you.


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Daniel Kingsley
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