No matter what job you have or what industry you work in, you need strong communication skills—i.e., the abilities, traits, and knowledge that help you give and receive information. Whether you’re calling potential customers, having a meeting with clients, emailing your boss, writing a press release, chatting with your coworkers, or doing anything else that requires you to convey or take in any sort of message, your communication skills make it happen.
“Communication is everything,” says Terry Rubin, cofounder and co-owner of The Professional Communicators, a consulting firm that focuses on workplace communication and public speaking coaching. “People judge your competence, ideas, strengths, weaknesses, and your potential based on how you communicate.” For example, a skilled software engineer who can’t communicate a plan or problem to the rest of their team or their managers could lose credibility due to a misunderstanding, Rubin says.
Strong communication ensures that members of your team or company work well together and achieve their goals. “It’s important to remember that organizations are, at their heart, a group of individuals working together and making decisions with the goal of achieving a common mission,” says Akhila Satish, CEO of Meseekna, which advises businesses on decision making and company culture. “Without communication, individuals may not understand each other or the goals of their organization.” Even if you’re self-employed, you still need to speak to clients or customers to achieve your own business goals!
“Bottom line: Good communication ensures that expectations are clear, points of view are heard, people feel respected, and relationships and job performance stay healthy,” says communication expert Julie Quinne, a leadership strategist and coach with over 20 years of experience in HR.
Read on to find out about the different forms of communication and eight key communication skills for the workplace—plus how to improve your communication skills and show them off in your next job hunt.
- What Are the Most Common Types of Communication?
- 8 Key Communication Skills for the Workplace
- How Do You Improve Your Communication Skills?
- How Can You Show Off Your Communication Skills in a Job Hunt?
What Are the Most Common Types of Communication?
Communication can happen in a number of different ways and via a number of different mediums. “There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ form of communication that’s going to work for everyone on your team,” Satish says, “so I would suggest getting to know your teammates and [learning] more about what works best for them.”
Here are the four most common forms communication you’ll need in your job:
- Verbal communication encompasses the words you say and hear from others—primarily in person, over the phone, or on a video chat. In other words, it’s speaking and listening. (Hint: Listening is often the more important one!)
- Nonverbal communication involves the messages we convey without using our words—everything from what our body language and vocal tone imply to how we position ourselves in space relative to our conversation partner to how we dress or otherwise present ourselves.
- Written communication is the transmission of information through text. This article is written communication, and so are your emails, texts, and Slack messages; the copy on a social media post; and comments on a Google Doc, project management software, or computer code—to give just a few examples. Writing skills are vital to succeeding in the workplace, no matter what your job is.
- Visual communication refers to the use of pictures, tables, graphs, or other images to communicate information. If you need to give a PowerPoint presentation or create a data visualization, that’s visual communication. Design is another form of visual communication that can send viewers less explicit messages about your brand or company values.
You likely use all four of these forms of communication, but depending on your job, you might depend on some more than others.
8 Key Communication Skills for the Workplace
Here are eight communication skills you can utilize in the workplace across different mediums to ensure you’re being understood and understanding others.
1. Active Listening
Active listening is listening so that you retain the content of what you’re being told, gather the speaker’s intent, and get a sense of the feelings and emotions of the person you’re listening to. Active listening can help you collect the information you need, reduce miscommunications, build relationships, and collaborate well with others.
When you’re practicing active listening, “You are fully present,” says Amanda Newton, an executive coach who also works as a communications executive in the mental health industry. And your “focus is on the other person.” You’re paying attention to not only their words, but also their tone, body language, and any other cues. If you’re just waiting for your chance to speak or listening only to get what you think you need from an interaction, you’re not practicing active listening.
In order to actively listen, make eye contact with the person speaking, turn toward them, and nod and react with appropriate facial expressions. You should also engage with what the person is really saying: Take notes, ask questions, restate what they just said, and offer solutions or suggestions. But only do these things authentically. “Active listening can be magical; or it can be robotic and infuriating. Everyone has called customer service and been treated to someone using your name too much and simply reciting back what you just said,” says Amie Devero, founder of Beyond Better and an executive coach and management consultant who trains professionals on communication for the workplace. “But you can listen actively and convey real empathy and commitment. Really listen with the explicit goal of understanding both the words and the experience behind them.”
Active listening is most relevant when you’re speaking to people, but you can use similar strategies when responding to written or visual communication. Ask yourself: What is the communicator’s intent? What can you glean about their feelings or emotions? You should also respond similarly: Ask insightful questions to learn more, restate their intent to make sure you understand, and respond appropriately.
Clarity in communication is two-pronged: Whenever you communicate, you first need to know for yourself what you’re trying to achieve, and then you need to make sure you convey those goals clearly to your audience.
“Defining your takeaways in the planning stages of your communication opportunities helps bring clarity,” Rubin says. The length and formality of a planning stage varies widely depending on the situation—for an important presentation, it could be days or weeks and involve formal meetings and brainstorms, whereas for a quick message to a coworker, it could be a few minutes or less. Regardless, take a beat before you speak, type, or do anything else: What do you want the person receiving your communication to come away knowing? For example, do you want to update them on an ongoing project? Ask them to do something for you? Resolve a conflict or miscommunication? Let them know they did a great job?
Once you know your goal, make sure it comes across in your communication. Are you directly stating the main points of your message or are you dancing around them? Does the recipient of your message have the information and context they need to understand what you’re saying? Are you giving too little or too much information? If you’re making a request, clarity is especially important: “We need to make sure we state clearly what is needed, what success looks like, when...something [needs] to be accomplished, and what level of priority [it takes],” Newton says. And if you’re not sure if your message has been clearly received, you can always confirm by asking.
Knowing how to be clear in any given situation requires strengthening many of the skills on this list, including audience awareness and communication method.
3. Audience Awareness
Audience awareness is knowing how to keep the recipient(s) of your message in mind as you’re planning and delivering it. Tailoring how you communicate to the specific audience helps ensure that you’re understood and achieve your goal. For example, if you were explaining an issue concerning your team’s day-to-day work to your manager, you’d likely have to give them less context and could use industry, company, and team jargon without defining it. But if you were trying to explain the same situation to company leadership or an outside stakeholder, you might have to reframe so it resonates, Rubin says.
Whenever you communicate with someone—using any medium—take into account where they’re coming from. Here are some questions to ask yourself about your audience:
- What do they know about the topic you’re talking about?
- What type of investment do they have in the situation? (For example, a colleague in the accounting department might be most focused on how much money a new project is going to cost or bring in while someone from marketing might be most interested in how it will be communicated to customers.)
- Do you know how your audience best absorbs information based on your previous interactions? (Do they grasp points more quickly when given examples or do they think in “bigger picture” concepts and ideas? Do visual aids help them?)
- Will they understand the jargon you use?
- Why does what you’re saying matter to them?
Then, plan your communication with your audience in mind and evaluate your audience’s reactions live in the moment so you can adjust if needed, Rubin says.
4. Communication Method and Tone Choice
This skill is all about choosing the best form of communication for a particular situation, which can make all the difference in how well your message is received and understood. Think of the verbal, written, and visual communication forms above as broad categories, but also consider the more specific approaches you might use within those categories. Something might be best communicated verbally, but should it be a casual conversation or a formal meeting?
To choose the right communication method, you need to:
- Take your audience into account: Maybe you can quickly send a Slack message to that coworker you’re close with, but you want to take the time to write a professional email to someone in your company’s leadership or pick up the phone and call an outside client.
- Consider the best medium for this particular message: What will be the easiest way to communicate your message clearly? For example, you might choose email to describe a situation that requires several paragraphs of background info, an in-person one-on-one meeting to discuss a difficult topic with a colleague, or a presentation to share the data from some A/B tests you completed.
- Be aware of any differences people may have when it comes to processing or delivering information. For example, if members of your team are deaf or hard of hearing (HoH), explore accessible options for communication, such as video meeting software that offers close captioning, says Di Ciruolo, a DEI facilitator and consultant and the author of Ally Up: The Definitive Guide to Building More Inclusive, Innovative, and Productive Teams. “The onus for good communication is always on both parties,” Ciruolo says, so be sure not to put all “responsibility for effective communication on the impacted person.”
- Consider your strengths and preferences: Don’t forget to take yourself into account! Do you struggle to get complex points across in writing? Do you excel at data visualization? Particularly if you’re a woman or part of another minority group, you may struggle to make your voice heard in the workplace, so which medium is most conducive to getting your message across in a way you’re comfortable with? If you feel like you’re often interrupted in meetings, maybe an email or written proposal is the best way to share your message. If you suspect the people you’re communicating with might not read something you’ve written, however, maybe a meeting with a firm agenda is the way to go.
You’ll also want to match your tone to the content of your communication. Is this a serious situation or interaction with a person you don’t know well? Keep things more formal. Is it something you don’t want the other person to stress too much about? Use a casual tone, but only if your relationship calls for it.
When in doubt about tone in the workplace, err on the side of professional and formal over casual. “Write in full sentences, with actual capitalization and punctuation,” Devero says. Even though most people understand “text speak” it might send the wrong message. “Communicate like a professional if you want to be perceived as one,” Devero says. And above all else, “Treat everyone with respect, regardless of your personal tastes.”
5. Emotional Intelligence and Empathy
Emotional intelligence (a.k.a., EQ) is being in tune with emotions—both your own and others’—and responding to them appropriately in a given situation. In the workplace, this often means empathizing with others. EQ can help you build stronger relationships, avoid and diffuse conflict, and contribute to a healthy and productive work environment.
To use emotional intelligence in your work communication, take the time to assess your own emotional state. Did a coworker drop the ball on their piece of code for a site redesign? Acknowledge if you might be feeling angry or annoyed because it disrupted your day and consider how those emotions might be coming through in your communication.
Think about where the other person might be emotionally as well—or just ask them. “If something seems surprising or out of character, it may very well be driven by something outside of work,” Satish says. “Take time to understand and appreciate the full picture before focusing on the work component,” Satish says. Don’t forget that the people you work with are people, even if you only know them in a professional context.
Additionally, “Choose moments for difficult conversations with tact,” Satish says. Think about it: If you were juggling a bunch of competing deadlines and your manager knew that, how would you feel if they chose that time to talk to you about how you’re not getting a raise this year?
6. The Ability to Give and Receive Constructive Feedback
At some point, you’ll need to comment on others’ work in order to help them improve and ensure quality results for your company or team—and receive and act on similar comments yourself. Constructive feedback “is a critical part of organizational growth,” Satish says that will help you build professional relationships, collaborate well with others, develop professionally, contribute to the professional development of your colleagues, and ensure quality work. “When done well, feedback allows both parties to grow,” Satish says.
When you’re giving someone constructive feedback, whether it’s on an individual piece of work or on something broader like a skill or work style, “It should be clear, action-oriented, and example driven,” Satish says. For instance, you should never just say that a design someone worked on is “bad” or “sloppy.” Instead, focus on specific areas where they can improve and use examples to provide context. And remember that feedback should never be an opportunity to demean someone or criticize who they are as a person.
Instead of, “You’re careless,” or, “This is impossible to understand,” try saying something along the lines of, “I noticed that you have a tendency to overlook some small details. In the presentation yesterday, you used Q2 numbers instead of Q3 numbers on the third slide, and you may have made a math error on the eighth slide. I think you could benefit from slowing down a bit and making sure you double check your work before finishing it.”
When receiving feedback, resist the urge to get defensive. Use your active listening skills and emotional intelligence to make sure you understand not only what the other person is saying but also why they’re saying it and how they might feel about it. Consider all feedback and whether it could be applied more broadly. For example, is this design “too busy” or do you have a tendency to include too many elements in a lot of your work? This doesn’t mean you have to take all suggestions without question, just that you should consider them.
7. Body Language Awareness
Body language is a large part of nonverbal communication. It’s how you hold and express yourself both while speaking and listening—including your position, posture, facial expressions, and movements, among other nonverbal cues. Generally, there are four scenarios where you need to be aware of body language:
- The body language of others’ when they’re listening: “Reading the listener’s body language is an important skill set to develop,” Rubin says, especially when you’re the one speaking. “Seeing their facial expressions, posture, even gestures...can all give clues as to the path the conversation or presentation should take.” Does your audience seem to be actively listening? Do they seem confused or disengaged?
- The body language of others’ when they’re speaking: You can learn a lot from someone’s body language as they tell you about an idea or a project or a problem that came up. What does the way someone is saying something add to their message?
- Your body language when you’re listening: “Your face and body language can speak louder than your words,” Devero says. “When words and expressions don’t match, the expressions win. Make sure they match and that both are respectful.” For example, you don’t want the person talking to you to think you’re upset with them because you’re frowning as they speak.
- Your body language when you’re speaking: Are you smiling and keeping a casual tone? The person you’re speaking to will likely receive what you’re saying as a positive message. Are you looking away from them or slouched down? They might think you’re nervous, dishonest, or uninterested. Meanwhile, “Fidgeting can make you look anxious or not confident,” Newton says.
Body language is also important for making people feel at ease with you, Newton says. “It’s important to make eye contact to build trust.” If you’re not sure of the correct body language for a given scenario, Newton says that “a little psychology trick is if you mirror someone’s body language, the connection tends to form quicker.”
In some cases, the concerns go beyond ease and connection. For example, if you’re a man speaking to a woman, standing too close to her could cause her to feel intimidated because women tend to have different safety concerns than men. And generally in professional environments, you should always make sure you’re giving your colleagues personal space.
8. Presenting and Public Speaking
In most careers, you’ll have to communicate with a larger group of people at least occasionally—whether it’s to share your ideas, the results of your work, or a product you or your team created. Presenting and public speaking are two different, but very related communication skills. Public speaking is talking to a group of people. Presentations are generally preplanned instances of public speaking, often with a visual element like a slide deck.
To be successful at public speaking, you’ll need to combine many of the other skills in this article such as:
- Clarity: Know the goal of what you’re saying before you start speaking, and make sure everything you’re saying leads to that goal. Don’t be afraid to jot down some notes to refer to in order to keep yourself on track—especially if you have a tendency to ramble or get nervous.
- Audience awareness: Deliver your message in a way that everyone listening will understand. For example, if you’re speaking to the marketing team, using common marketing terms like “KPI” or “owned channels” is just fine, but if you’re presenting to the whole company, you’ll want to make sure you either avoid or define marketing-specific jargon. Additionally, you should connect what you’re saying to something that affects members of your audience when possible. That presentation on a new database feature you coded will get the account management team a lot more interested when they realize they can now sort clients by contract size, for instance.
- Body language: Pay attention to the body language of your audience. Are they engaged? Confused? Bored? Slow down or speed up as needed and give your audience the opportunity to ask questions.
If you’re presenting and have a visual element, make sure that it’s clear and not too dense. “Think about more images and less text,” Rubin says. At his company, “We have a ‘Rule of 12.’ No more than 12 words on a slide.” A dozen words or less may be too few for every situation, but minimizing how much time your audience will spend reading rather than listening to you will help your presentations go smoothly. Your visual aids “need to be a presentation enhancer and not a replacement for you as the speaker,” Rubin says.
Public speaking is one of those skills that people have a tendency to believe they’re either good or bad at, but that isn’t true. You can absolutely improve your public speaking skills through practice! Start by speaking up more or offering to present in smaller group meetings where you feel more comfortable—or even just to a group of friends or loved ones—and build up from there.
How Do You Improve Your Communication Skills?
Public speaking isn’t the only communication skill you can improve. With some work you can become a better communicator in any area. Here are a few tips:
- Figure out which skills you want to work on. Even if you broadly want to improve your communication skills, it will be easier if you focus on one at a time. So choose where you’d like to start. For example, if you want to work on making your writing clear and presenting more confidently, but you rarely give presentations, maybe opt to start with clarity in your writing. If you’re not sure which skills you need to work on, get feedback from the people you communicate with regularly both inside and outside of work.
- Ask for help. Find a friend, family member, or trusted coworker who is adept at the skill you’re trying to improve and ask them for pointers.
- Consider taking a class or working with a coach. Depending on what skill you’d like to improve, you may be able to find a free or paid online course. Or you could work with a coach who specializes in communication. For example, on The Muse’s Coach Connect service, you can book a session that focuses on specific communication situations like interviewing, networking, or negotiation.
- Educate yourself on communication obstacles faced by others. People of different backgrounds and demographics face different challenges when it comes to expressing themselves and being listened to at work. Particularly if you’re in a position of relative privilege, you should take the time to learn what communication hurdles others face and how you can be a strong ally to people with disabilities and individuals of all races, sexualities, and genders. Learn about how you can use gender-inclusive language and communicate in a way that advocates for equality. It’s not on those from disadvantaged backgrounds to teach you how to be inclusive or to change who they are to fit the status quo. Ciruolo doesn’t like to teach women and those from minority groups how to belong on teams. “It doesn’t make sense for me to teach you how to teach someone to treat you like a person. If they wanted to keep you they’d make that a priority,” Ciruolo says—so make it a priority for you.
- Practice, practice, practice. Whatever communication skill you’d like to improve, practice is the key. Take opportunities to practice outside of work, for example, in networking groups specifically for this purpose or even with friends who’d like to help. Cut yourself some slack as you improve, but if you mess up in a way that offends or disrespects someone, be sure to apologize and learn from your mistakes (without dwelling on your apology or making it about you).
How Can You Show Off Your Communication Skills in a Job Hunt?
Employers want employees with strong communication skills. How do you convince them that you fit the bill?
Identify Which Communication Skills Matter Most for the Job
What types of communication will come up most often in the job you’re applying for? Comb through the job description looking for job duties that have to do with writing, reading, presenting, collaborating, managing, or interacting with others in any capacity. Take a look at how the company describes itself on its website or Muse profile if they have one. Does the company stress ideas like teamwork and collaboration? Do some of the communication skills for this position require specific knowledge of a technology, process, or task? Keep all of this in mind as you apply and go through the hiring process.
Work Communication Skills Into Your Application Materials
When preparing your application, mention your important communication skills for this job right on your resume. If you’re trying to show off a hard skill like a specialized type of writing or technology, a method of design or visualization, or a process for sales or management, work these directly into strong resume bullet points, include them in your skills section, and/or mention them in a resume summary if they’re really important to the job.
For soft communication skills, you’ll want to give the person reading your application examples of times you’ve used them well. You can summarize how you’ve collaborated, managed, delivered feedback, and achieved results in succinct, quantified bullet points or expand a bit more in a cover letter.
Lastly, keep in mind that your resume and cover letter are themselves examples of your communication skills. So make sure they’re well written and organized and it’s clear what information you’re trying to get across. This is especially important for writing-heavy roles. You can also include samples of your work through links to a portfolio or personal website that hosts your writing, designs, or other communications.
Show Your Skills in Action During Interviews
Interviews, whether they’re in-person or over the phone or video, are prime opportunities to present yourself as a great verbal and nonverbal communicator. Prepare to answer common interview questions (as well as those about emotional intelligence and DEI) and brush up on your interview skills so that you’re ready and focused. Throughout the interview, listen actively, communicate clearly and succinctly, be aware of your body language and the interviewer’s, and demonstrate your emotional intelligence. Remember, interviews are conversations, so be sure to ask the interviewer follow-up questions and be personable and positive. “Positive energy (nonverbal) is palpable. People always want to share space with someone who has a bright light,” Newton says.
Communicate Well Throughout the Process
Every interaction with your prospective employer is a chance to show them you’re a strong communicator, so use it! Communicate clearly on any social media accounts a company might see, especially LinkedIn. Answer emails and phone calls professionally, and let them know about any difficulties that come up on your end that might affect them. For example, if your current job calls a last-minute meeting on the day you have a planned video interview, email your interviewer if there’s even a chance you’ll be late. Be sure to give them all the information they ask for clearly and promptly, and send thank you notes to anyone who interviews you. If you follow up on your application or after an interview, do so respectfully. And always be polite and positive to anyone you interact with at the company even—and maybe especially—if you don’t think they have anything to do with the hiring process.