The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

A few weeks ago, I popped in on a marketing event for a skincare company. A company consultant was scheduled to speak and asked if I’d provide some feedback on her presentation. She did well, but it was another consultant, a young lady endearingly nicknamed “The Millennial,” who really caught my attention as she put the financial benefits of her part-time job into perspective. She said, “Instead of having to choose between buying groceries or a new dress, I can now afford to buy groceries and that new dress!”

As she continued to speak, I noted a parallel. How many professional business people can say they’re great at their jobs and skilled communicators? When people launch their careers they immerse themselves in the technical aspects of their work. To be a good accountant you have to know how to prepare financial documents, right? But what then? How many people take the time to develop the interpersonal skills needed to sell themselves, their company and their ideas?

I recently worked with a partner at a prestigious law firm. Dave, as I’ll call him, was whip smart, hard-working and an insanely good problem solver. He was also an insightful guy, who had come to see these qualities as foundational rather than a guarantee for success. As Dave put it, expertise without a sizable roster of clients doesn’t mean diddly to a law firm. Like the aforementioned skin care consultant, Dave wanted it all. To be a top-notch lawyer and rainmaker. He saw it as a great way to distinguish himself from competitors who he observed as either people oriented or great legal minds, but rarely both.

It comes down to this: If you can’t effectively share your ideas or connect with others, at any level, who’s going to follow you? It makes you wonder why companies, even schools (law schools included), tend to give short-shrift to communication skills. When budgets are tight, communications training is often the first to go. Even the nomenclature “soft” skills in itself implies a level of inferiority to hard skills, but to assume communication skills don’t impact a company’s bottom line is a mistake.

A 2013 Google study outlined by business writer Joel Anderson reinforces the point. Dubbed ‘Project Oxygen’, Anderson reported on research that examined all available data to determine which skills and characteristics were most predictive of success at Google. Anderson wrote, “Even at Google, a company built around the idea that hard engineering skills like coding and mathematics are what truly define success, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) expertise finished last among the top eight characteristics of Google’s best employees.” 

So what were the top seven characteristics? Yep, all soft skills:

  1. Being a good coach

  2. Listening well

  3. Possessing insights into others

  4. Having empathy toward colleagues

  5. Being a good critical thinker

  6. Being a good problem solver

  7. Being able to connect with others across complex ideas.

A similar study at MIT Sloan revealed a 250% return on investment (ROI) after factory workers in Bangalore, India were taught soft skills over the course of a year. Researchers cited increased productivity as the main reason for the gain.

Soft skills can be hard to master and unlike hard skills, are more nuanced. There are the fundamentals like eye contact, body language and vocal inflection, but as the Google study reveals, listening skills and emotional IQ are also of critical importance. Have you ever met someone who looked at their watch while you were speaking to them? How did it make you feel? How about people so focused on themselves that they fail to ask you questions? Or what about the colleague who checks-out after completing a presentation. You gave them your attention, but when it’s your turn to speak, they’re slumped in their chair checking e-mails. 

Our brains are hardwired to judge. How we relate to people, how we speak, dress and even sit are noticed and assessed by others. And don’t expect anyone to tell you, you don’t seem ready for prime time. It’s sensitive stuff and often difficult to quantify or articulate. You just wont get the business or promotion.

Here are 5 easy ways to bolster your interpersonal skills:

  • Be present in a conversation. If you have to look at your watch or phone during a conversation, at least explain why so you don’t come across as arrogant or bored.

  • Take note of the way other people communicate. If you’re outgoing and a prospective client is introverted, try dialing back your energy to accommodate their communication style.

  • Don’t interrupt. Let a person finish their statement before chiming in. Good listeners are regarded as more trustworthy.

  • If you’re concerned about the tone of a sensitive e-mail, read it aloud to see if it delivers the intended meaning. 

  • Demonstrate engagement by asking questions and then follow-up questions to clarify. The best way to build rapport is to demonstrate genuine interest in another person’s work.

Everyone has their communication challenges. For some, better eye contact and executive presence fit the bill. For others it’s about how to best start and end a speech, engage the media or finesse small talk with a prospective client. Anyone can kick their communications skill-set up a few notches with as little as an afternoon of coaching.

The Eyes Have It- How to nail eye contact for a tv interview.

One of the most frequent questions I get from media training clients is:  “Where do I look during an on-camera interview? At the reporter or field producer? In to the camera?” It’s a great question, and one that doesn’t come with a standard answer. To understand why, consider three of the most common interview formats:

  1. Soundbite
  2. On-set
  3. Remote

How you manage your eye contact will depend on which of these interview formats you encounter.

1. Soundbite interview. This type of interviews is generally brief, maybe 5 -15 minutes in length. The reporter likely wants a soundbite or two from you to help balance a story. The rule of thumb is to keep your eyes fixed on the reporter or field producer when answering their questions. Don’t look directly into the camera- it’s jarring. You’ll look more natural speaking to a person rather than a camera. It’s also a lot less stressful since most people aren’t used to speaking to a camera.

You also never know which bite a reporter is going to use, and you don’t want it to be one where you look distracted or unfocused. I was reminded of this golden rule a few months ago while watching a tv news story on a medical malpractice suit. One of the interviewees was the plaintiff’s attorney. Her soundbite started out well enough, but then, for what ever reason, she looked down and delivered the the final and most important part of her message to the floor! Ouch. It was like watching a marathoner collapse right before the finish line. The downward glance diminished her presence and diluted the impact of her message. She could have nailed her eye focus in every other bite, but it didn’t matter. If you’re worried about creeping out the reporter with all that eye contact, try briefly looking away while the reporter is asking the questions. You’ll appear as if you’re contemplating an answer, rather than avoiding a stare down.

2. On-set interview. This format is usually live, and tends to be more complicated since there’ll be plenty of in-studio distractions. There are the cameras, camera operators, floor director and all those monitors where you can see yourself. Again, the challenge is to keep your eyes focused on the host. If there are two hosts, perfect! Make eye contact with both of them.

3. On-camera remote. This format is arguably the most challenging for media communicators.  In this setup, the program host is geographically separated from the guest. Usually, the two are in different cities as in the CNN interview below.

Unlike soundbite and on-set interviews, the key here is to always look and speak directly into the camera. The guest and program host can, in most cases, only see each other via a split screen monitor and hear each other through an earpiece called an IFB, or Interrupt Feedback device. 

As a former Chicago news anchor and reporter, I know how disorienting this can feel. It's difficult to sound conversational or forge a connection with an audience while speaking to a camera. If you’re asked to do one of these types of interviews, my advice is to imagine the camera lens is a window through which you and your host can see each other. Fight the compulsion to grab a quick glance of yourself in the studio monitors. I see tv guests doing this while on-air all the time! It's distracting, your audience will wonder what the heck you're looking at? Do yourself a favor and practice this type of format at home using a cell phone, I-pad or any other recording device before the interview. 

If you’d like more information on this subject or would be interested in a media training workshop, consultation or mentoring session, contact me at nancy@pendercomm.com or info@pendercomm.com