9 communication skills leadership can’t succeed without
Communication skills are the most important soft skills for many professions. Having great communication skills can help you get ahead regardless of where you fall in the business hierarchy. However, they are especially important for leaders.
Effective leadership communication can make or break a business. Business leaders play an important role in representing the company to investors, customers, partners, employees, and media outlets. Poor communication from a leader can lead to a lack of trust, low employee engagement, and missed business opportunities.
In addition to being an important business tool, a leader’s communication style can also become a part of the company or leader’s brand. Leaders are the face of their companies. Even if you’re not doing giant product unveilings ala Steve Jobs, the way that you as a business owner or leader communicate when networking with clients, sitting on a panel during an industry conference, or posting on LinkedIn or Twitter will become a part of how people remember your company.
Here are 10 of the most important communication skills leaders need to have.
This one seems a bit obvious, but it is a skill that many professionals struggle with. If you were the kid in school that hated giving presentations, it might be time to consider taking a public speaking class. Leaders often have to address large numbers of team members, stakeholders, customers, or even event attendees. It is not uncommon for higher-level leaders to speak at conferences or lead a product launch event. If the idea of getting up in front of a room full of people to speak sounds intimidating, you may want to start practicing now.
This is a skill that emerging leaders often need to build up. If you’ve been promoted recently or accepted a new role, you may not have as much public speaking experience. Middle managers often don’t do a ton of public speaking, but once you reach higher levels it becomes quite common. It’s a good idea to get as much practice in as possible before you have to deliver an important speech to clients or investors. Public speaking classes, groups like Toastmasters, or even just internal meetings in supportive work environments can be great opportunities to break out of your shell and get some practice in.
One of the most important communication skills for leaders is clarity. Good leaders need to be able to deliver messages clearly regardless of whether they’re communicating over email, in-person, Zoom, Slack, or even social media.
This is especially important in more technical fields. Leaders in complex and technical industries sometimes have difficulty properly packaging their messages for non-technical audiences. For example, if you are the founder of a tech start-up, you need to be able to clearly explain your product to highly knowledgeable people as well as the everyday end-user or non-technical employee.
One way to work on clarity is to ensure that others within your team know that they can ask for clarification whenever they need it. Creating an open culture where people aren’t afraid to ask questions can help you understand where people are having trouble unpacking your instructions or communications. It also gives you practice in rephrasing your communications for increased clarity and prevents miscommunications.
It’s also worth noting that clear messages aren’t necessarily always concise, but you should be able to write clear and concise messages when needed. Long-winded messaging works well for more visible business leaders that speak at conferences, host webinars, or appear on podcasts. You have a good amount of time to fill and may want to go more in-depth on topics to provide greater value to viewers or listeners. However, you should also be able to explain your product, mission, and company initiatives in a paragraph or even a 240-character tweet. This is another area to practice if you’re still building your communication skills as part of your overall leadership development.
Storytelling isn’t just a skill for novelists, it’s actually a key component of effective communication for leaders. Effective leaders need to be able to tell the story of their company in a manner that others can connect to. Investors, employees, customers, and the media want to hear a compelling story about your company’s trajectory; where it’s been and where it’s going. If that story is told in a bland or jumbled manner, you won’t get buy-in from any of the aforementioned parties.
Realistically, almost every business has competitors. While your business might have a unique spin on a value or service or an added value proposition, you are likely not the only company operating in your niche. This isn’t a bad thing, competition is expected. However, it does drive the need to stand out with your story.
Think about the contestants on Shark Tank, the investors and the viewers tend to support business owners that have a great story and tell it well. Leaders should practice how to tell their business’ story in a way that gives people something to grasp. Think about why you started the business and how to create an interesting and accurate narrative around how you founded it. Then, practice telling that story in both long and short-form versions while speaking aloud.
Motivational speaking sounds a bit cheesy — but it doesn’t have to be. The goal is to communicate with others, especially your employees, in a way that gets people excited about what the company is doing and motivates them to be a part of it. When speaking or writing a message to employees you may highlight company growth and opportunities for them to earn more and advance in the company as the company continues to expand. With investors, you are motivating them to invest to be part of a company that is achieving great results or positioned to disrupt an industry with an innovative idea.
Business leaders also need to be able to communicate the company’s mission and values in an inspirational and motivational manner. Engaging your employee base through a shared sense of purpose will improve employee engagement and teamwork. It also helps everyone keep pushing forward during tough times such as busy seasons or when the company is experiencing a major change or setback.
Non-verbal Communication Skills
Everyone needs to be cognizant of how they communicate nonverbally, but leaders need to be especially diligent. Non-verbal communication makes up a large portion of our communication — while the exact percentage is often debated most researchers do seem to agree that more than half of communication is nonverbal. Some even report that 93% of communication comes from nonverbal cues such as body language, tone, and facial expressions.
One thing that leaders need to be considerate of is the fact that employees may feel nervous speaking directly to them. Using more open body language can help put them at ease and make high-level leaders appear more approachable. Closed-off body language such as crossed arms can have the opposite effect. The right mix of open body language, good posture, and a confident tone of voice will help leaders appear approachable while still appearing professional and self-assured.
Making and maintaining eye contact is another important form of nonverbal communication. Eye contact demonstrates focus and shows that you are truly engaged and listening. It also helps build trust and shows respect to clients, employees, and others that you may be interacting with. Avoiding eye contact is common if you are nervous, and natural for some neurodivergent people, but many people do view this as a sign that a business leader lacks confidence or is being dishonest.
One unique challenge that leaders face is that they not only need to be skilled relationship builders, but also efficient ones. Most executives or business owners have fairly packed schedules. You often need to make a meaningful connection and strong first impression during a 30-minute or 1-hour meeting window. It can get even more hectic at industry events when you may meet someone at a booth, networking event, or group business dinner.
One trait of an effective communicator is knowing how to make people feel comfortable and get them talking. If you only have a short meeting or business dinner to make a connection with someone, you don’t want to waste a lot of time with awkward small talk or short yes or no answers. Asking open-ended questions can be a great way to encourage others to open up about themselves, their company, or their business needs.
Once you get them talking, utilize active listening to show that you are engaged with what they are saying. Try to take a mental note (or an actual note) of a few key things about the other person. Try to note a mix of personal and professional things that they shared. This allows you to send a better follow-up message after meeting them and will help make the relationship feel stronger.
A skilled leader should be able to match their communication style to the person or group that they are interacting with. The exact same communications approach may not work for internal staff meetings, formal board meetings, investor meetings, and keynotes. Leaders should be able to adapt their tones, body language, and speech based on the audience as well as the message that they want to convey.
This is particularly true for start-ups or small businesses. Within start-up culture, leaders tend to be more informal and higher energy when interacting with staff members during meetings or stand-ups. By using more casual communication, you can better connect with your employees and build trust. A more formal tone or body language can make high-level leaders appear intimidating to employees and discourage them from speaking up. You want people to feel comfortable bringing up ideas, questions, or concerns during internal meetings. However, you may want to take a more formal tone during board meetings.
It’s also important to adapt to the company culture. If you are the founder of the business, the culture will likely already be partially shaped around your own communication and leadership style. However, it’s not uncommon for executives or department directors to switch between companies with quite different cultures. For example, many people start in large corporations and move to small or medium-sized businesses for an opportunity to obtain a higher-level leadership role and title (c-suite, VP, department head). They need to spend time learning the culture and communication patterns of the new business to properly assimilate and adapt their communication strategy rather than forcing their old employer’s approach on the new team.
Emotional Intelligence and Empathy
Great leaders have high emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to recognize and control their emotions as well as perceive and understand others’ emotions. The key elements of emotional intelligence are:
Now it’s probably not surprising to see motivation on that list since most business owners or executives are highly motivated people with strong social skills. Empathy, on the other hand, is a largely overlooked leadership communication skill.
There is often a strong perceived divide between leaders and lower-level employees. In many cases, that divide isn’t just perceived, but it is very real. However, a leader exercising empathetic communication can help bridge the gap. Leaders need to be empathetic to the day-to-day struggles of their employees. Listen to employees, or better yet, ask them if the workload is getting too high and creating burnout. Try to understand any external pressures they might be experiencing such as childcare issues, and try to find solutions such as flexible work schedules.
Leaders, especially executives, tend to get a bad reputation for being out of touch. The reality is that if you aren’t actively soliciting feedback, listening to employees’ concerns, and responding with empathy, then you probably are out of touch with your employee base. The challenge of being a leader is that unless it’s an incredibly small business, you won’t be able to see or remain involved in all of the day-to-day operations of your business and staff. Creating a culture of open communication and empathy can help improve employee engagement, morale, and retention. It also gives you a clearer picture of what is going on at all levels of the business.
Understanding Communication Channels
It’s also important to not only know how to adapt your message itself, but also how to deliver it properly. Choosing the wrong communication channel for an important message can result in a major public relations faux pas. For example, several companies have recently come under fire for choosing to announce layoffs through impersonal communication channels or with less than empathetic messaging.
Now it is true that there will be times when your preferred communication channel is not an option. With distributed teams, sometimes you will have to opt for video conferencing tools like Zoom rather than an in-person conversation. However, it is still important to know when to send an email, instant message, or hold a face-to-face video meeting.
In-person (or at least face-to-face via Zoom) is typically a better communication channel for major company updates that are likely to generate discussion. It’s best to provide employees with the opportunity to ask questions or raise concerns immediately, publicly, and directly. If you sent an email with a major update, you’d be fielding individual messages all afternoon and there is likely to be some confusion or anxiety from employees while they await clarification. That being said, nobody likes to attend a meeting that could have easily been an email. This feels like a waste of employees’ time and can be frustrating if they have a lot on their plate and could have used that time handling urgent tasks. Good leaders need to carefully consider the appropriate channel for each communication.
Keep Building Your Skills
Keep in mind that leadership communication skills need to be continuously practiced and updated. You may be feeling a bit rusty on some of the skills included on this list if your company hasn’t returned to the office or you’ve yet to return to your normal networking and conference event attendance. That’s perfectly okay. Just working to improve your communication skills and many of these things will start to become a habit.
These 9 leadership communication skills are all important building blocks of strong communication and can be adapted to fit changing communication channels. Many leaders have had to adapt their communication approach to better fit remote communication channels such as Zoom, Microsoft Team, or Slack. You even may be wading into communicating over short-form video content with the rise of TikTok or Instagram Reels. The core skills largely remain the same but leaders do need to stay adaptable and be willing to practice communicating over new channels or company cultures.