9 Practical Communication Techniques Everyone Should Know About
If I could magically tune up one skill across our team, it'd be communication.
Marketing would create more awareness; sales would win more deals; support would make happier customers; development would collaborate more effectively. Not to mention the overall boost in morale that'd flow from better communication in our private relationships.
So if communication skills are so valuable across the board, why do we invest so little in improving them? Maybe we're just tired of hearing generic tips like "become a better listener."
The following 9 communication techniques can be practically applied today – whether you're writing an email to a customer, making a sale over the chat, or trying to win an argument with your spouse.
1What - so what - now what?
Let's start with some techniques that will make you better understood. If we could only weed out all misunderstandings, we'd solve half of the world's problems.
The What - So What - Now What technique comes out of Matthew Abraham's Speaking Up without Freaking Out and is based on the principle of information structuring. Abraham claims that people retain structured information 40% more reliably and accurately than unstructured information.
Just think about how you'd memorize the phone number 0616131744. Remembering the entire sequence as one chunk is hard. It becomes easier when you break it up and structure it in parts: 06 - 1613 - 1744. As Matthew Abraham explains in the below video, structure increases processing fluency.
What - So What - Now What is a straightforward structure that can be used in practically any situation. Start talking about the what. Then about why it's relevant. Then what the next steps should be. You can use it to answer questions, but also to introduce people:
That’s Timoor. He’s a big basketball fan like you. Let me introduce you to him.
I try using this structure in my day to day conversations, but I also keep it as a blueprint when writing an email or blog post.
This technique stands for "explain it like I'm five years old" and is useful for talking about complex or technical concepts. Tech-savvy people often wrongly presume a certain level of technical knowledge from their conversation partners.
This doesn't mean you should feed the information with a flying spoon going "vroom-vrooom!". Instead, just assume zero mastery of the technical jargon from the side of your listener. Avoid technical terms and explain complex concepts through familiar analogies. I like how the concept of an API was explained here, for example.
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There's an entire subReddit dedicated to Eli5, with plenty of examples.
Instead of asking your customer to, say, ZIP a file, you could provide step-by-step directions: “Right click the file, choose ‘compress’, and send the new ZIP file that was created.” Assume you're talking to Jon Snow. It's not that he's not intelligent, it's just that he knows nothing.
Now some powerful techniques to make you more convincing.
We're all familiar with the practice of straw-manning. Side A makes an argument in a discussion. Side B then summarizes that argument in a way that makes it look worse – before tearing it down. This leaves side A feeling misunderstood, misrepresented, and eager to retaliate. No one is likely to change his mind.
If your goals is to actually convince the other side and not to humiliate him in front of an audience (the politician's way), a better communication technique would be steel-manning. This is the practice of summarizing the other person's argument as favorable as possible – even more favorable than your conversation partner did.
A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.Benjamin Franklin
What does "more favorable" mean? Let's say I'm trying to convince Bob, an online shop owner, to try out our live chat software. He tells me he already offers support over the phone and email, and he doesn't want to overwhelm his customers with support options. If I were straw-manning, I could say:
So you think your customers are happy with email and phone support? Not in the 21st century! No one likes to call anymore these days. Everything happens through text. And no one likes emails either. You never know how long it might take to get an answer. Really, Bob, live chat is the only channel for a modern online shop.
If I were steel-manning, however, I would first summarize Bob's argument and check whether he agrees with my interpretation of his words. Then I'd indicate which points I agree with, and perhaps even reinforce it with points he hadn't considered yet. Only after, I would try to change his mind.
I think I understand what you mean. You already have an extensive service setup. And it's also true that too much choice could confuse the customer. You want things to be as easy as possible for your customers. But still I'm convinced your shop could benefit from live chat. Unlike phone or email, live chat is always just one click away for your web visitors. So your visitors don't have to pause their shopping experience to get in touch. So in that way you are making things easier for them.
The steel-manning way avoids a 'you versus me' situation. By first siding with the other side and reasoning in their terms, you show that you take them seriously and actually understand their points. This will make it much more likely for them to return the favor.
4Problem - solution - benefit
This is another structure-technique from Matthew Abraham, often used in sales. You first describe the problem (e.g. "There are mosquitos in your room"), then the solution ("Hang this mosquito net around your bed"), and the benefit ("It prevents mosquitos from biting you, so you'll sleep like a charm and wake up without bites").
FAB (features - advantages - benefits) is a related sales technique to explain product features. You describe the feature (e.g. "This mosquito net is sprayed with mosquito-repellent"), then the advantage ("Mosquitos will be unable to come through even when small holes develop in the net"), then the benefit ("This strongly reduces the risk of bites compared to other nets").
If you follow the Userlike Blog, you will have encountered this technique before.
An experiment by psychologist Ellen Langer showed that the likelihood of a favor being granted is strongly increased when a reason –any reason– accompanies the request.
The experimenter would ask people waiting in line for a printer whether she could cut in ahead of them, either (A) without a reason, (B) because she was "in a rush", or (C) because she needed to print.
While B obviously did better than A (94% agreed versus 60%), there was almost no difference between C and B (93% versus 95%).
So next time you're trying to get permission from your wife to go watch football with the guys, you'll be more likely to succeed when you tell her it's because you love football.
6Why - How - What?
In his book "Start with Why", Simon Sinek explains how the world's most successful leaders inspire people to follow them, by focusing on the Why, then on the How, and finally on the What. He calls this order of reasoning "the Golden Circle". Sinek recognizes a trend in successful people and companies who put the bigger purpose first.
Most computer manufactures, for example, have the purpose of building computers. They focus on the What, which isn't very inspiring. Apple, on the other hand, has the purpose of disrupting the status quo. Their products are only the proof of their larger purpose.
For interpersonal communication, it works well for when you are presenting an idea, or asking someone to do something. By starting out with the Why, you get your listener(s) enthusiastic, and more receptive to your message.
Of course there are plenty of interactions in which the Why - How - What approach doesn't make sense, e.g. when you're introducing yourself. In those moments, structures like What - So What - Now What fit better.
7The "but you are free" (BYAF) technique
The problem with convincing is that no one likes being convinced. No one likes being sold on to something. We want to feel in control, not like we're being forced to change our beliefs.
According to 42 studies on 22,000 people, the most persuasive sales technique is to finish your argument with a remark like: "but you are free to do otherwise". So in your pen sales pitch, you could close with:
I could place an order of 100 pens. All your employees will be sealing their deals in style. If I place the order today, I can secure a 20% discount for you. But you're free to refuse, of course.
This cue reminds people that they are in control. Whether they follow your argument or not, they are still the ones calling the shots. Instead of framing the situation as a 'you versus me' scenario, it's framed as a scenario in which you offer extra information for your partner to consider – like an advisor shares information with the president.
Advisors don't convince the president. They offer relevant information, after which the president calls the shots. Paradoxically, this freedom makes you much more likely to follow the other person's argument.
8The premature 'we'
Building rapport is another important part of communication. One technique from Leil Lowndes' How to Talk to Anyone is the use of the 'premature we'. He describes the four levels that human conversations typically pass through:
- Sharing clichés
- Sharing facts
- Sharing personal questions and feelings
- “We” statements
'We statements' are sentences containing words like “we”, “us”, and “our”. “We'll find a solution”, “Let’s look at it together”, “Let’s make a good impression on our bosses”. These create a feeling of belonging to the same group.
Although these normally come after personal questions, you can 'hack' the system and use them early on – speeding up feelings of intimacy.
Besides making yourself as clear as possible, being persuasive, and building rapport, conversational skills are another crucial element of communication.
Improving them will make you better at networking, making sales, and generally at getting people to like you. The below video about communication skills introduces the concept of 'conversational threading'.
Basically, conversations consist out of exchanges of stories. One side hears in the other side's story an element that reminds her of a similar story, which she then brings into the conversation.
Good conversationalists know how to find conversational threads that interest both sides. When someone shares a story, they recognize the various elements they can hook in on.
What's more, they share statements that allow for easy hooks for their conversation partners. You could say: "I love coffee". Not a lot of conversational threads in there.
You could also say: "I love coffee. Probably a bit too much. But it's the only fuel that gets me through a working day." There are plenty of topics to expand on there – "How many cups do you drink per day?", "I'm more of a tea person.", "What work do you do?", "Yeah I used to be a coffee addict as well, but then..."
I wanted to share the best cross-channel communication techniques, but that's not the end of this topic, of course. Here are some great videos on communication that take things in a different direction:
How to speak so others want to listen:
10 ways to have a better conversation:
This is your brain on communication: