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Complicated communication

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If you asked successful leaders what made them successful, I'm certain you'll find the answer to be good communication skills.

Let's face it, leaders spend most of their day engaging in communication of some kind or other. That's because leaders need to get things done through people. They use their communication tools to motivate and direct their teams; they set a vision and goals and use communication to attract followers. They also use communication to influence others, both within their corporations and external in the community.

Yet, good communication isn't just limited to those individuals holding senior leadership roles. Developing staff into becoming good communicators is a goal that all leaders should think about. It is highly valuable to have leadership and communication skills throughout your organization. Good communication skills and good communication overall helps to ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction and motivated to achieve company goals.

At the same time, people often think that because they can talk, they are communicating and that is definitely not the case. Just think about a situation where a message was communicated but completely misunderstood. Think about that poor employee who completed a task only to find out that they spent all their time on the wrong objective. What does that do to their morale?

Yet, communication is complicated. It can involve poor timing, little or no understanding of the audience or listener, illogical word or thought sequence, inappropriate tone of voice, cultural misinterpretations, the wrong medium or completely the wrong purpose. In addition, communication is complicated by the respect and image of the speaker, the size of the audience, the noise level and/or the medium in which the message has been sent.

At this point, I am sure you can agree that talking doesn't mean you are communicating. Communication is a learned skill and one that leaders at all levels of an organization require to be successful. Leaders need to engage in controlled, planned and directed communication that allows for a purposeful transfer of information and meaning to the listeners. This can be for a single person, a group of employees, a volunteer organization and/or your community. In fact, the higher you climb that corporate or organizational career ladder, the more important communication skills will become.

The question for some is where does a person go to learn and build their skills in communication and improve their leadership skills at the same time? Yes, you can take a short course or two, but in my experience, there are too many binders of notes sitting on your shelf already; partly because you've had no one to practise with and/or to coach and guide you.

In my view, the best approach for skill development is to engage in slower, learn by doing, practical and hands-on programs.

This is where the Toastmaster's International organization comes in. With humble beginnings as far back as 1924, Toastmasters has now grown to become a world leader in communication and leadership development with 13,500 clubs in 116 countries. Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario alone have approximately 1,400 members in 106 active clubs with participants ranging from 18 to 80 years of age.

Each weekly Toastmasters meeting is essentially a "learn by doing" workshop. Participant members learn communication skills by working in a series of learning manuals consisting of approximately 10 self-paced speaking assignments. Members critique, evaluate each other's presentations and provide constructive feedback for improvement.

The Toastmaster's program features four cornerstones of skill development. First, participants learn to give prepared speeches. Here you will learn to set specific objectives for a speech and correlate appropriate hand gestures or tone of voice to make your speech more powerful.

The second cornerstone of development involves impromptu speaking skills. This means being able to think on your feet and speak about a topic right on the spot, within a one- to two-minute time frame. The third cornerstone of development teaches how to evaluate others and to give feedback in an encouraging and effective way.

The final cornerstone of development is gaining the skill of completing a speech on time.

New members typically join Toastmasters to rid themselves of the fear of speaking, increase their self-confidence, become a better speaker, develop leadership skills and generally become a better overall communicator. Once members have completed the basic programs and gain self-confidence, there are plenty of other opportunities for continued development as well as genuine fun.

For instance, the parliamentary club teaches members how to chair a meeting and to follow Roberts Rules of Order, the well-accepted parliamentary procedure guidelines. For those with a sense of humour, members can attend a comedy club where participants engage in improv by doing an opening act at the beginning of every meeting.

There is also a French club for those English or French participants who are interested in improving their public speaking capabilities in French. Finally, there is a club for those book lovers where a selected book is discussed each week. Finally, for those individuals who wish to participate, there's an annual conference as well as several unique competitive programs during the year.

Bev Doern, the current district #64 governor began her career with Toastmasters over 15 years ago and calls her experience a life-changing event. Originally shy, reserved and challenged to speak up in her workplace, Toastmasters allowed her to build her self-confidence, communication and leadership skills to such an extent that she was put on project teams and consistently promoted.

Doern also suggests that involvement in Toastmasters also helped her to become a better mother. For instance, while she was confident in her listening skills, she felt challenged when trying to communicate with her growing teens. Her work in Toastmasters helped her to be more deliberate and to focus on engaging her teens rather than simply telling them what to do.

As indicated earlier, good communication and leadership skills are significantly interlinked. Developing good communication skills will develop and strengthen your leadership skills such that career and life success are more easily attained. With this in mind, Toastmasters International reaffirmed its belief that confidence is the voice of leadership and thus rebranded their organizational vision to be "where leaders are made."

If you want to develop your communication and leadership skills, check out the Toastmaster International website at www.toastmasters.org, attend a club meeting or contact Bev Doern at www.district64.ca.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP is president of Legacy Bowes Group and vice-president of Waterhouse Executive Search. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 H1

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