Project Management

Good consulting requires good communication

Don't let a communication gaffe damage and possibly end a client relationship. Learn how to improve your communication skills.

 

Your technical abilities form only a small part of what you need to be successful as a consultant. Because your clients are all people (at least until the machines take over), skills in dealing with people can make or break any consulting engagement. One of the most important people skills you can acquire is the ability to communicate well.

Language proficiency

Let's start with basic language skills. Recently, I worked on a project that required quite a bit of research. The available sources were severely limited, but I finally found an article by someone who had been there before and knew what he was doing. However, although the article was ostensibly written in English, the author's grasp of the language was tentative at best. This made a difficult subject even harder to follow, so much so that if I'd had another resource available, I would have dropped this one. But I didn't, so I fought through it and spent way too much time trying to make sense of every other sentence.

I'm not someone who thinks that everyone in the world should speak English. I like linguistic diversity -- I know from experience that learning more than one language opens your mind to different ways of thinking. But in whatever language you choose or are required to communicate with your clients, you must be proficient. Consultants regularly bring new ideas that may be difficult for clients to comprehend. Don't let language barriers make that even harder.

Language usage

Besides clearly transmitting your message, your use of language also affects your reputability. Even though the author of the article to which I referred above demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the subject matter, after reading the first few paragraphs, I might have been tempted to dismiss him as illiterate. Your use of language comprises a big part of your first impression on clients, especially if the first contact is not in person.

That doesn't mean you should embellish your communication with lots of highly technical or obscure words (yes, I know I'm guilty of using obscure words). Words that appear designed to impress will usually have the opposite effect on smart listeners; your client may assume she is supposed to know what a specific term means, and she might find her lack of knowledge an embarrassment and be afraid to ask for the definition. This hampers communication rather than enhancing it.

Engagement

The key is to engage your audience -- whether you're speaking one-on-one or to a public gathering or you're writing an email or a formal document. An informal, conversational style often helps to keep people interested. But there's a big difference between using contractions, colloquialisms, and even the occasional bit of intentional bad grammar versus the unintentional mistakes that proceed from ignorance. The former keep people awake and engaged, while the latter merely present stumbling blocks to communication.

People attend better when they enjoy the process. It's almost always good to sprinkle in some humor or colorful metaphors to make your subject more interesting for your audience. The most noxious tasting medicine can be made palatable by adding some sweetness, and even though that might mean that the recipient gets more sugar in their diet than they strictly need, the overall effect can be beneficial. Conversely, even the most fascinating subjects can be transformed into a Trail of Tears by a pedestrian presentation.

Engaging means tuning in to what your audience is thinking, and speaking directly to them. You need to listen at least as much as you're talking. If you have a final answer on any subject, you can't really have a conversation about it -- you can only dictate what you believe, and people don't like dictators even when they're right. As with iteration in software development, exchanging information and ideas helps all parties explore the subject matter more fully -- even if you disagree. So I find it helpful to promote the attitude that there are no sacred ideas -- any conclusion is fair game for renewed discussion if that seems helpful to any party. That doesn't mean that you have to question the meaning of existence or whether computers can actually work before you can tackle more immediate problems -- but you should be willing to explore any assumptions that might blind-side you and your client. In my experience, most people usually err on the side of inflexibility -- as if their answers, once concluded, should never again be questioned.

Remember, the goal is not to bring others around to your way of thinking; the goal is to find the best solution, even if that means having to admit you were wrong. Good communicators inspire others to think about a subject and contribute to the general understanding about it.

How to improve your communication skills

As with most endeavors, practice makes perfect. We live in an era where you can put content on the Web and get feedback from around the world. Use that to your advantage. Write regularly on a blog, or submit articles and white papers for online publication. Look for opportunities to speak in public. If you're not yet ready for the stage, maybe think about joining a local Toastmasters to hone your skills first.

Every time you write an email or speak in person or on the phone, consider how best to get your message across to clients. Often, fewer words say more -- and that means it's time for me to shut up.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

26 comments
pogra
pogra

yes this is very true, as good communication make any deal doubtless and authentic in every respect.

reisen55
reisen55

I have a previous career in marketing and sales, which goes some distance in communicating with people AS PEOPLE and not as "users" or other deadly terms of our trade. I prefer to write and mail, YES, MAIL, letters and correspondence - inclusive of Newsletters which are tangible items. Too easy to DELETE an email along the way. I also write up status reports for daily visits as required and summarize status for other less invasive accounts.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Come on Chip ... that's pushing it. At least find an obscure word that belongs and isn't so easily replaced (not to mention that it really, really looks like you shoved it in there after the fact). :D Surely you can obfuscate better than that?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... have you seen the highly skilled technical person who couldn't talk well with others, and was thereby unable to get acceptance for something that badly needed to be done? I could count them on my fingers, if I had a hundred hands.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Certainly a background in sales helps with communication, when the sales role has been conducted properly. In that case, it's all about meeting customer need by offering a useful service -- not the "bad" sales we so often encounter that is nothing more than enticing the mark into signing. To do the "good" sales requires excellent communication skills in order to not only hear what the customer wants, but also to draw out what they really need. That kind of salesmanship is a key component of good consulting.

safnate
safnate

There are many people out there! who can get the job done, but their com. skills is very bad. I think to belong to a certain group of people u firstly need to understand the language. If i want to program in C++, Firstly i need to learn & understand the Fundamentals,this applies to every career. Communication is very important especially if you are sitting with your client.

biancaluna
biancaluna

I have several of those in my current team, Chip. It also means unfortunately that I have to micromanage, as these highly technical folks just do not know what needs to be done or how to drive a project home. I've learned to speak in metaphores a lot. When I talk about requirements for example, I sometimes refer to a car. Do I really want to sell you the Lamborghini whilst you need a well running Holden(Australian car). Do we start with a good car chassis for Unified Comms and pimp your ride with applications on the network to create a collaboration platform? I also use a lot of communications aids when building a team. This is a ship, I am the skipper, the plan is the sea chart, there is the reef, you guys need to row to the beat of the drum, steady as she goes. There is a hole in the ship, call out the ship's engineer. Humor is vital. So is a grasp of who you are talking to and what language they speak. I speak 5 languages fluently, but that is not what I mean. A records manager listens to a consultant who speaks about compliance, a strategist wants to hear words that demonstrate vision. Then one peppers it with humility, which is the deliberate mistakes. We do not wish to be seen as arrogant do we. Rephrase, reframe, I hear you say that, Do you mean that, if you allow me to para phrase... I have a tech lead at the moment who is very insecure, I tell him to use active verbs - I will, I am, I shall, We are. Not kinda, sorta, coulda, shoulda. The emotion follows the thought follows the word. You can give yourself, and others, confidence by using certain words and tones of voice. That is important. It builds trust. Sometimes technical folk fall for thinking that it is not le ton qui fait la musique, but it is the tone and the way the message is presented that sets the scene and makes or breaks your intent. I am a reasonable writer, and the amount of very senior managers I see that cannot write for quids, I can count them on my fingers, if I had a hundred hands. Very senior leaders, struggling with stringing a basic sentence together. What are we teaching our kids in school? Sometimes I fail miserably, being a non native english speaker by birth, I still struggle a smidgen with my grasp of the english language at times. Or how cultural backgrounds affect how and when we communicate and what is acceptable to a dutchy, might be too direct for a Malaysian person. That is also an issue with status communications - at times I have not provide updates as I assumed the client trusted me enough to know that I would only report exceptions. Communicate early and often, even though you have nothing to say. It keeps people happy. I will also leave you with an example of something that made me laugh out loud when it happened, but made me think twice later. Many years ago I worked for a big American company, and I had a teleconference with some folks in Texas. I used the word niggly, meaning I have this niggly thought that we missed this in the due dilligence. I was openly attacked for being a racist as niggly is derived from a horrible word that I do not even wish to utter. Which is not the case at all, it is used frequently in other parts of the world to describe a nagging thought. When I stated I found the comment about racism odd as I am married to an Indian, I was attacked again and told that I should say Native American. Yes, one could almost forget that tiny little country in Asia with oh, a billion people. Cultural divide even in English speaking countries make for interesting communication breakdowns. I agree with you, writing is practice, takes practice, takes reading. I did several courses in writing and executive relationship building. But the best way to learn how to write is to read.

ArnoldZiffle
ArnoldZiffle

I could not agree more. There is nothing worse than grammatically incorrect written communications. However, as you pointed out, someone whose first language is not our own should be, "cut some slack." One other observation, if I may, I try to anticipate my audience and adjust my technical jargon based on what I believe them capable of understanding. One other thing no matter who you are dealing with, avoid acronyms or say the phrase please!

jck
jck

Wish Dell would take your article as gospel. Never talked to a group of less knowledgable "support" people in my life. 2 people barely could understand the language. Support for Gateway (Acer) was even worse, and that was using just online chat twice. Yikes. Chip, you need to become the brain of the corporate world and institute some of your advice with them. Maybe we could get someone fluently speaking English to us on the other end. Think you could open a cheap-cost call center somewhere like...remote West Virginia? Let me know :)

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Naw, I was just pulling your leg. ]:) The meaning is perfect. Personally, I would have gone with reputation anyway (or good reputation). But that's because I prefer to write in the common parlance. This from the guy who gets ticked when people confuse assume and presume! :D

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

FYI Niggly is from the verb "to niggle" meaning to be preoccupied with minor details. (why does that sound familiar? must be a coincidink :D ) It is thought to have Scandinavian origins and has been dated to the late 16th/early 17th century. The other word is from the Spanish and French words for black and is thought to be from the mid 17th century. So the next time someone calls you on it you can send them to a good dictionary to look up the words.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I agree that metaphors often clarify -- just a word of caution, though: be careful not to let the metaphor define reality. How many times have you seen software development likened to constructing a house? Fine and good, except the plans need to be redrawn once a week and the materials change while you're using them.

santeewelding
santeewelding

You have obviously done an immense amount of reading. And, you put it to expert use. Expertise such that I am unsure if I am qualified to say what I have said in comparison.

sfeatherston
sfeatherston

I find when dealing with clients to always have a metaphore handy. I try to use one that relates to their business. As far as cutting people slack who don't speak the language of the home country they are supporting.... while it may not be their fault they were hired by some moron company who can't figure out you should support customers in their own language it is their responsiblility to get good at it. You can tell the ones who try to master the communication barrier and those who resent the fact that you don't speak Indian or whatever country they are from. Steve F NEO

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's a pretty fine distinction, if you ask me. At least one meaning of each word comes pretty close to the other.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

A misspelling of a key word in a post about how you need to know the language is irony at its best -- even though I agree with the comment.

pamelahowell
pamelahowell

misspellings irritate those of us who are literate and snarky. ---p, just sayin'

jck
jck

Well, I won't say anything about the Hokies or Cavaliers... :^0 but...slam NJ all you want. :^0 As for West Virginia...well, let's just say a reason I have a fondness for it at the moment. :)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I grew up in the South -- in Virginia (not West). I wasn't slamming the South, I was slamming our northern neighbors.

jck
jck

Where you have to know an Asian dialect in 40% of the shops, or have to talk as fast as a jack rabbit on speed down in the market in Pike. The south isn't so bad, and you won't hear about subway problems or gridlock either. Oh, and the labor market is about 60-70% less than the cost in Seattle :p lol