Essential communication skills and how to practice them

Part of what sets great leaders, magnetic personalities, and artists apart is their ability to communicate. Humans crave connection, understanding, and teamwork, none of which can happen without strong communication skills. But our upbringings and natural talents differ—some people possess an innate ability to understand others or have more practice with effective communication. 

Since humans are both social and highly adaptable, we have infinite opportunities to become good communicators and gain new soft skills. Whether you’re aiming to get ahead at work or just trying to be a good roommate, there are ways to improve your verbal, nonverbal, and written communication.

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Table of contents

Verbal communicationNonverbal communicationWritten communication

Verbal communication

We talk every day, and perhaps because of this, we rarely think too hard about the way we speak. But how and when we choose to speak, as well as what we say, are the most essential elements of communicating effectively. Here are four ways to hone your verbal communication skills. 

1. Be confident

While it’s easy for society to poke fun at someone who overuses “like” and “um” to fill space within their sentences, such verbal stumbling is often a symptom of low self-confidence. When you’re with your friends you might be a motormouth, cracking jokes and rattling off stories, but if you’re not as self-assured when speaking in front of your peers, you might forget words or lose your train of thought. 

Improving self-confidence is a lifelong journey, and doing that work on yourself will help improve your verbal communication. Some people find taking improv comedy classes or completing a course like Toastmasters to be helpful in building their confidence with public speaking.

2. Watch your tone

Sometimes unprocessed emotions can come out in the tone of your voice. You might sound irritated if you haven’t taken a moment to breathe before responding to something that made you upset, or overly excited if you haven’t allowed your heart rate to return to normal after hearing good news. 

Other people respond to and feed off your emotions, so controlling your tone when you’re trying to relay neutral information is helpful. Taking a beat before you respond or saying you need a moment to collect your thoughts is almost never a bad idea. Before going into the conversation, it can also help to imagine how interacting with someone who is agitated, angry, or brimming with excitement might make the other person feel.

3. Pay attention

Communication is a two-way street. Unless you’re giving a speech, it’s unlikely that you’ll be speaking face to face with someone who isn’t responding at all. Pay attention to the way they react—are they responding with questions and affirmations? Or are they curt and impatient with you? 

Good communication skills include active listening as well as the ability to receive feedback. Observe how your message is being processed, then adapt based on the listener’s emotional state. Your listening skills are as vital as your speaking skills.

4. Have an open mind

On that note, it’s vital to go into any verbal conversation with an open mind. As human beings, our capacity to learn and connect is endless, and any conversation between two people will inevitably take on a life of its own. Let it—that’s when the magic happens.

Nonverbal communication

Our facial expressions, body language, timing, and general energy vibrations all contribute to nonverbal communication. These nonverbal cues help us process verbal conversations. 

Nonverbal cues—or the lack thereof—are the reason you feel “Zoom fatigue” during the COVID-19 pandemic: because our brains have to work extra hard to decipher social cues when we’re not in person. Here are three tips to refine your nonverbal communication skills.

1. Make eye contact

Meeting others’ eye lines is the most important nonverbal cue when letting others know where your attention is resting. Whether you’re speaking or they are, maintaining eye contact is a great way to ensure you’re connecting on a nonverbal level. Don’t overdo it, though—sometimes an uninterrupted gaze can make others feel uncomfortable. There’s a happy medium somewhere between reading the texts coming in on your Apple Watch and staring into the other person’s soul during a house meeting about what to buy at Costco.

2. Face toward the other person

Negative body language, such as crossed arms, a twisted torso, and slouching, indicates a lack of interest, even that’s not what you intend to convey. When you’re speaking with someone, sit straight, face them, and don’t create barriers between you and the other person.

3. Don’t overthink it

The same way cultivating self-confidence helps with verbal communication, the best approach to improving your nonverbal communication is to ensure it’s authentic. So do what you need to do to be healthy and balanced—exercise, journal, meditate—and your relaxed vibe will come through in your body language.

Woman on a zoom call with six colleagues.

Written communication

Emails, cover letters, text messages, research papers, and reports—no matter what your career path, good writing skills are a must. If you find writing daunting, keep in mind that your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect (and it rarely is). Editing yourself is just as important as writing a first draft. 

Here are three pieces of advice to boost your written communication skills.

1. Write fast, edit slow

Many accomplished writers still struggle with procrastination. A long-established way to beat writer’s block involves the simplest technology: a timer. 

If you’re struggling to get started, set a timer for a short amount of time—15-30 minutes—and set aside everything else you’re doing. Just write until the timer goes off. Don’t agonize over quality, because you’ll be editing and polishing your work next.

Take a break before you dig back in, though. Walk around the block, set it aside for a day or two, or even just use the bathroom and come back. Try to read as if you’re seeing the material for the first time, then start hacking away. 

Here are some tips for editing: 

  • Focus on concision. If you’ve said something in two different ways, choose the more impactful sentence and cut the other one.

  • Choose your words carefully. Depending on your audience, you might want to switch out certain words. If you’re writing a thank-you note after a job interview, don’t say you were “stoked” to meet the team, say it was “a pleasure.” If you’re having a difficult conversation with a roommate, maybe “thanks for listening to my point of view” is more approachable than “I appreciate your time.”

  • Be consistent with grammar. Unless you’re writing an article or research paper for which established rules exist, choose some grammar standards and stick to them. If you’re capitalizing the first word of a sentence and all proper nouns, do that throughout your piece. Don’t distract the reader with the technical details.

2. Use the inverted pyramid

In old-school journalism, reporters were taught to write in an inverted pyramid style: put the most important information at the top. In the digital age, when readers (even of our personal emails and texts!) are likely to click away quickly, this is more important than ever. Get to the point sooner than later, or risk losing the attention of your reader.

3. Take a lap before you hit send

Even if you’ve already edited, take a break and step away before you hit send or submit. You won’t regret it—promise.

Whether you’re trying to improve your communication in the workplace or building rapport with roommates, practicing these tips every day will up your adulting game and help you become a well-rounded person.

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