The feedback session highlighted that my greatest weakness is my inability effectively orally communicate ideas or complex information to my business team. My oral communication strategy has been highlighted as ineffective, confusing and can overwhelm, disengage and demotivate my team mates on occasion. Within our team, where we are newly forming and exploring ideas, whilst being in different locations, ensuring effective communication is a top priority. In line with my personal learning contract and the feedback, I consider this to be a really significant area that needs to be addressed for the benefit of the business team, to enhance our ability to learn as a team.
My ability to effectively communicate to my team effectively is crucial not only to our business but to our team based learning and engagement. My past experience and love of learning is a potential asset to our team but is ineffective if I can’t communicate back into the team. Moreover, when I come to communicate within the team I often feel like there is a preconception, and not a misconception, that I am going to launch into a long ramble, which is often true. Whilst I have tried to research different strategies and approach oral communication differently, I find in the moment, I make the exact same mistake.
This has led me to question my approach and thinking process, before the point of communicating orally. The problem seems to stem from the pragmatic issue, that I always have far too much I want to say, in far too much detail and once I start talking, I’m unable to effectively organise my thoughts, so they can come out disjointed and fragmented. In stark contrast, my written communication, as I am able to spend time considering it, is very organised. As an introvert, I have a constant internal dialogue with myself, which in terms of academia and business, means I have the potential to over think, which can steer my thoughts out loud or mean I’ve have too many things I want to say.
When I come to write down my thoughts or prepare for oral communication, I go through an organisational process, where I brain dump all my thoughts and research, unrestrained and refine them down into coherent, well-structured ideas. By preference, I like to research and explore unconstrained and make sense of the information I find in my own way and thought processes. Whilst I am aware, this method takes longer, it is one that I personally enjoy learning within its structure and has always enabled me to produce high quality work and research. Clearly, this process, heavily contributes to the fact that whilst I like an information overload, that when I start speaking on a topic or idea, it can be perceived like an information avalanche. As such, my way of working has always been to put all the information on the table and let people make sense of it and judgements however feedback has been so far that this is overwhelming and for some disengages and they are unable to follow. As such, I don’t actively seek out engagement; I wait for my audience to engage on their own terms.
Consequently, Hills (2001:105) defines effective team based learning, as being dependent on the whole team being able to contribute to created ideas and solutions. Pragmatically, my ineffective communication style stops this occurring. As such communication within the group needs to be at a bare minimum understandable and straightforward before members can engage. During this early stage of idea incubation and business formation, it is crucial that as a team we build effective communication channels and utilise the knowledge each person is bringing into the team.
Moreover, within our coaching sessions, whilst I’ve taken huge amounts of time to prepare for knowledge sharing sessions, on reflection, my learning preferences dominant how I communicate the information back and I haven’t considered the learning preferences of my team. As such, when I read journals, I like to really understand, to challenge and to question; I like to make sense of it in my own way. This deep level learning preference isn’t mirrored across my team mates and they become disengaged when I go into detail. Moreover, my coaches’ feedback has been that my interlinking of themes means that I attempt too much and whilst I understand, I lose my team. Consequently I need to develop communication strategies that harness the way I like to learn and perceive things, but communicate the information back in a more accessible, coherent format; once which considers the audience.
Ludlow (1992:2) defines effective communication as an active process involving the transfer of information which has the outcome of shared understanding. Ludlow’s definition is interesting as it highlights in its simplicity, the three areas in which my oral communication fails, as illustrated by my deconstruction. Firstly, the communication must be an active process on both sides, involving the engagement of both parties. This is a strategic issue and doesn’t just consider the imparting of information but how to ensure it is absorbed and engaged with, provoking an element of response. Secondly, the transfer of information is suggestive that the communication should have a clear, coherent message and shouldn’t consist of a myriad of concepts and ideas. As such the receiver should be able to pick out the main strand of information being communicated with ease. Thirdly, my misconception that communication finishes once the person speaking has finished, completely negating the fact that the end goal of effective communication must be that the information has been successfully imparted and understood (Ludlow 1992). As my oral communication is a distinctly one way process, involving the expression of a whirlwind of information in which I wait for the receiver to engage if they wish to, it is no wonder that it is ineffective.
As mentioned above, my communication strategies are dominated by my learning preferences and where I lie on the Kolb learning cycle (Kolb 1984). I prefer to reflect and think my responses are considered and researched. I hate being placed into situations where I have to respond to something I’m unprepared for; hence my reflective nature leans towards over preparation. This can lead to an overwhelming amount of information being imparted verbally, which to my predominantly activist team mates, is a completely ineffective approach. As such communication should not be about conveying a message in isolation, it should focus on the audience, their learning preferences and understanding their modes of perception and judgement (Ludlow 1992).
Moreover communication with a team with a learning culture has collaboration at its heart, as such communication should involve sending, then receiving, then understanding and then accepting; four distinct, active stages with prompts for engagement (Ludlow 1992). All parties involved including the sender, need to actively listen, to seek out signs of misunderstanding and disengagement. The aim here, isn’t just to deliver a one way message, Ludlow’s model seeks to involve, requires participation and facilitates the receivers to make sense of information with the sender.
Taking this to another level, Ludlow suggests a meeting structure in order to facilitate participation from large group teams, ensuring a common purpose and that multiple ideas are progressed through (Ludlow 1992). As such each point delivered could follow the same process:
- Introduction and objectives of point – The outcome needed is presented to the team, whether it is a brain storm or a concrete end decision.
- Introduction of broad themes and purpose – Point explained following communication model of sending, receiving, understanding and accepting as above- information and facts are clearly presented to the group.
- Team engagement with themes – Opened up for discussion and exploration, to test understanding and to encourage collaboration of ideas. Group divergent thinking.
- Integration of thoughts – Team movement to clear acceptance and convergent thinking.
- Conclusion and action plan – Reaching the end objectives and moving forward.
This model within meetings and coaching sessions stops communication of information being a one directional process without engagement and stops tangents and potential incoherence, as the end point is identified at the beginning and at the end. This method further enhances our team’s aim of building a learning culture with high levels of psychological safety, as is invites collaboration of ideas, collectively breaking down ideas and rebuilding them as a team. Moreover, and most importantly, it effectively manages nine people’s contributions within a structure and enables the separation of facts, feelings and opinions into the relevant sections of the interaction, avoiding disengagement occurring as facts miscommunicated as feelings or vice versa. Such confusion is a pivotal cause of disengagement and misunderstanding within teams (Ludlow 1992).
Now with an effective model in place to ensure engagement and effective communication for the team, the next issue is to explore how to make sure my messages are clear and coherent. Lake (1997) points to the indisputable truth, that if 90% of what you say is perceived as unnecessary and overly complicated, then the 10% that is crucial to their understanding will be completely missed. As such, my personal challenge is to become more disciplined, more concise and to consider my audience.
My pitching has been an area commented on as strength due to its clarity and persuasive nature. Within pitching I adopt a completely different method of communication, developing key messages and objectives that I constantly refer back to using them to structure my pitch. As such Lake (1997) suggests a similar approach to all oral communication. This involves the same process I go through for a pitch, researching and organising my thoughts in any way I wish, but before I write the pitch, I pull out at three key messages for the audience ensuring I remain concise. The pitch therefore communicates effectively what I’m trying to say, as it hammers clear points home.
Furthermore, Lake (1997) suggests that preparation for any big or small presentation shouldn’t start with “what do you want to tell them?” as for someone that loves researching and exploring ideas, I can often want to tell my audience everything I know because I’m passionate about it. Instead, I need to start with the questions “what do they need to know?” and the realistic “what do they want to know?” This is especially true within my activist team, as they don’t want to know the theory and details that I crave. As such whilst my learning preference is still exploited, the communication of the learning is about what the audience receptively wants to hear.
Lake (1997) proposes a model to approach oral communication preparation, that involves prioritising what the speaker says, a discipline I currently lack. Lake (1997) suggests breaking down the information into four parts…..
- What is necessary to say?
- What would be useful to say?
- What you’d like to say?
- What is superfluous?
Adopting this model, into practical use within my preparations, I consider whilst the first two should be included, point four should be dropped if the audience don’t need to know it or wouldn’t be interested in it. In terms of what you’d like to say, it should be approached with the view that it must have a significant supporting relationship to the core message and needs to be justifiable, over and above, than me just wanting to say it. Thus, I approach communication like I approach a pitch, with the mantra that everything I say must have an impact.
Another method of oral communication I’ve began to engage with is “story-telling” (Hills 2001:114) in order to convey more complex information. Relating a journal article or theory to a practical example, seems to restrain my train of thought, keeping it relevant and brings it to life, making it more tangible for the audience. This approach, whilst I’m testing it, certainly engages my team mates more than another other form of communication I’ve tried.
Conversely, whilst I am struggling and exploring this communication area, as a personal development area for the benefit of the team’s learning, Hill’s feedback loop could add some value to the process, which is a tool I’ve used within teaching and workshops I run before, but never within my business teams (2001). As a collective we make the assumption that we understand and that because we have spoken, the communication has been effective, however we constantly stumble across instances where there is complete miscommunication within the group, which is suggestive that ineffective communication is an issue across the whole team. Whilst, the models outlined above, provide a structure and potential solution, the feedback loop invites the team to repeat back information and assumptions, ensuring clarification and correct interpretation (Hills 2001). Such a method also promotes team engagement ensuring the correct communication models are in place and can be reflected upon, whilst providing a means to gain feedback in regards to my personal development in this area.
Successful communication relies on the communicator beginning with the response they want to achieve, which for my oral communication is to be understood, to be clear and to encourage the team to engage with I am saying. Consequently, I need to focus on the clarity of my message and the learning preferences of my audience. Pre-planning and preparation should focus on ensuring I’m effectively understood and engaging, not knowing every detail of the presented subject (Lake 1997). I need to embody Hill’s (2001:114) mantra, “seek to understand and then to be understood”. I need to understand my audience before I expect that they understand the information.
My learning style whilst effective personally, is ineffective within the team learning environment, consequently I need to step outside myself and ask the questions “what am I trying to communicate back to the team?” and “How can I effectively communicate this to them?” this process involves discipline. As such, I will utilise Ludlow’s (1992) interaction model and meeting module to shape my oral communication and I will utilise Lake’s (1997) approach to prepare for oral presentations.
Hills, H. 2001. Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Lake, C. (1997) Open Learning – Communication. Oxford: Pergamon Open Learning
Ludlow, R and Panton, F. (1992) The Essence of Effective Communication. London: Prentice Hall