Listening and Speaking Skills

Listening and Speaking Skills by Walter McIntyre

A process improvement team is from the beginning a team of investigators. They investigate process performance by looking for improvement opportunities and the root causes of problems. All of us have seen detective programs on TV where a sleuth investigates a crime. They ask questions, listen, set up stakeouts, and eventually discover what really happened. Process improvement teams follow the same strategy. They ask questions, listen, and monitor processes. All of this to discover the root causes of process problems. An improvement team will use all four basic communication skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. These skills become the lubrication that allows a diverse group of team members to work through an improvement project successfully.

We are taught early and often in school to read and write while constantly being told, not taught, to listen. The result is that we are generally poor listeners. If you are not a good listener, you will miss much in life. In the case of a process improvement project, asking questions and listening will take up the bulk of your time. In fact, listening skills may be more important than your statistical prowess. Much of the contextual information surrounding a process will be obtained through interviews and simply listening to the “shoptalk” of process owners.

Here is an exercise to help develop listening skills. The next time you are at a group function like a party or meeting, try not talking about yourself. Instead, try to learn specific and detailed information about as many people as possible. This will require you to listen carefully and ask many questions. It will not be hard, because people like to talk about themselves. All you have to do is be quiet and listen. The next time you interact with these people, you will be in a superior knowledge position because you will know a great deal about them, but they will not know much about you.

Getting the support and resources necessary to move forward in an improvement project also requires well-developed speaking skills. This is because of the need to ask questions and to tell the process’ story. The best discoveries and ideas in the world are worthless if they cannot be expressed to others. Here is an exercise that will help improve speaking skills. The next time you have a presentation to make, videotape yourself giving the presentation beforehand. When you view and listen to it, you will see and hear what others see and hear when you are speaking. You will find that you neither look nor sound like you might have thought. With this visual and audio information, you can make adjustments and increase your chances of a successful outcome.

Additionally, successful public speaking involves subject matter knowledge, good diction, projection, and some knowledge of the target audience. All of these boil down to being prepared. You must know what message you want to deliver and what terminology your audience is used to hearing. You must also anticipate the questions that will be asked and what personal motivations will be in play. A prepared speaker will know how to answer these questions and what threshold of value will be needed to sell the audience members. This way, the presentation will speak with its own merits and not be held up by the skill of the presenter.

Good diction and pronunciation are a matter of practice and feedback. Listening to yourself and getting the feedback of a test audience will be of great value. As far as pronunciation goes, make good use of a dictionary. Don’t make the mistake of having your audience thinking about how you mispronounced a word rather than the merits of your business case. It is also a good idea to use words that you are comfortable using everyday. Trying to impress by using big words that are not generally part of your vocabulary will trip you up.

Projection involves two things: speaking loud enough to be heard without being too loud and speaking with conviction. You should know the layout of the room where the presentation is to take place and what audio or visual aids will be available. A strong confident voice will go long way to building and conveying conviction. Not sounding confident or being difficult to hear will be like blood in the water to the sharks that are looking for a reason to not provide the resources you need in order to be successful with your project.

Lastly, the knowledge of who your audience is and what their value prepositions are is critical. Do not forget that you are trying to motivate them to action on behalf of your project. This means that you will need to frame your presentation around their interests. A little research ahead of time before you build the presentation can give you this information.

All of the above is meaningless if you do not believe in what you are doing. Participating on an improvement team for political reasons is unproductive and can hurt your career rather than help it. People can hear conviction, or the lack of it, in your voice. Be engaged, be productive, and have fun with the process. Being a change agent is not easy. You will make friends and enemies. Do not confuse friends and enemies with allies. An ally is simply someone who shares a similar value proposition as you do. Much of your time will be spent building strategic alliances that can help your team succeed.