Communication Skills Development

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Hello and Welcome,

My name is Bob, I'm an electronic engineer and a university lecturer. I'm trying to write a book on communication skills development.

Most books are written by just one author and as such are kind-of monologues. In fairness, many books will reference other related written works e.g. other books, journals, reports etc.

Nonetheless I think a monologue on communication skills is fundamentally flawed in the sense that communication requires dialogue. So I'm looking for a co-author(s). Ideally, the co-authors whom I'd like to engage in this dialogue are the target readers of the book. The target reader age-group are 2nd and 3rd level students which is approximately age 13 to 23 years. However, I'm not fussy. Anyone is welcome to contribute. So in theory this book could end up with around 7.5 billion co-authors although in practice I'm guessing it won't.

Now working in target reader dialogue into the writing of a book in this way isn't really a totally new idea. I've adapted it from user-centred product design and development. What happens there is that the designer makes a rough prototype of their intended product and asks some target users to try it out. Then based on the target user's reaction, the designer will further refine the design so that the final end product really does meet the needs of the target user. Depending on the particular product being developed, the designers might often go through a number of cycles of target user trials and feedback.

The Japanese are good at this. I remember when I worked in Japan (before you were born!) there was a group of us developing a product for use in TV studios. We designed and built the first stage prototype in England and demonstrated it a few trade shows where prospective buyers would look at what manufacturers were working on and give useful feedback. Sometimes interested clients at these trade shows would even order one of the products before it was available. Anyway, based on the trade show target user feedback on this prototype, Sony (who I worked for) decided to manufacture a load of them in Japan. So I moved over to Japan (bringing two prototypes) to join the production team. This turned out to be a great and really enjoyable experience.

The thing is that even after several cycles of prototype trials and user feedback, when we released the final product some clients still used it in configurations which we hadn't anticipated. This highlighted a design flaw which meant that we had to recall the first batch (thankfully we'd only sold about 10 at that stage) and insert a solution.

Now one of the fundamental laws of communication is:

Actions speak louder than words

The fact that Sony recalled that first batch and fixed it sent a very reassuring message to those clients.

In the interest of communication, I've tried to keep the essential reading chapters (chapters 1 and 2) of the book to a minimum. I've also tried to keep these two chapters as concise as possible. In fact, chapter 1 is probably the shortest book chapter ever written.

I hope you enjoy using the book and I also hope you'll join me in writing it.

– Bob


Chapter 1: Why are communication skills important?[edit]

I've just typed the title of this chapter into Google and I got 21,600,000 hits. So I'm guessing that suggests that they are important. If you click into just a few of the websites listed under the above search, you quickly see that they nearly all relate to the importance of communication skills in the workplace. Basically, big companies employ lots of people with all sorts of specialized skills e.g. engineers, scientists, accountants, economists, managers, administrators, technicians, sales and marketing graduates etc. Now the continued success of an awful lot of these big companies depends on two things, namely,

1. employing people who are good at what they trained to do e.g. see above list of professions and 2. employing people who can work well as part of a team.

Its number 2 here which relies heavily on the communication skills of the employees. In fact, there's lots of evidence to show that communication skills can help a lot with number 1 also (see section #). But let's just focus on number 2 for the minute. Imagine you graduate from college with a degree in physics and go to work for a company developing laser printers. You'll probably find that you're now working with a team of people including mechanical engineers, technicians, a manager, an accountant, administrators etc. The team performance depends heavily on each specialist member of the team being able to explain their relevant specialist knowledge to the other team members. This includes being able to explain themselves in writing, verbally and by whatever means available e.g. multimedia presentation, demonstration etc.

So that's the end of chapter 1. I wonder is this a world record for the shortest book chapter ever written!


Chapter 2. How can I develop my communication skills?[edit]

How can I develop my writing skills?[edit]

I reckon the single most effective way to develop your communication skills is to try to get into the habit of writing. By forcing yourself to write down what you know about something, this helps you to clarify your thinking and refine your understanding.

Clear writing reflects clear thinking

Now some people are natural born writers. I'm definitely not one of them. In fact, I'll only write something if my life depends on it. If you're anything like me then one way to try to kick start your writing is to pick some topic that you're really interested in. I don't necessarily mean one of your subjects in school or college, although I'm not ruling out any of those either. What's most important for now is that you try to choose the one thing in life that you're most interested in. If you've never really given this much thought then that's OK and its not unusual. Most people (including Tom Jones) have enough on their mind in just dealing with the mundane matters of everyday life. So if you're going to try this then give yourself a bit of time to really think about it. When you've picked a topic that you're really interested in (soccer is fine by the way) then have a go at writing down a bit about it. Not too much - one page is plenty. Include pictures, sketches, concise annotated illustrations (CAIs - check it out!) etc.

A picture paints a thousand words

and a CAI adds a few more. Try to include why it is that you're interested in this topic. If its mainly one specific aspect of the topic that you're really passionate about then feel free to just focus on that e.g. centre-forward performance in soccer or how to maximize top-spin in a penalty kick. When you have about a page done and you're reasonably happy with it (don't worry if its not perfect

Don't get it right - get it written)

then its time to get some feedback comments on it. So the question now is - who are you going to ask to read it and give you feedback? I'm hoping you'll pick me. If you think I'm joking then there's only one way to find out. If you've read this far on what it is that I'm passionate about then the least I can do is read one page about what you're into and give you some feedback. My email address is bob.lawlor@mu.ie - maybe put 'communication skills book' in the subject line just to make sure it doesn't get stuck in my spam filter. Don't limit yourself to just my feedback

Two heads are better than one

so ask someone whose feedback you'd value to take a look at it. Now you can be tactful here. Say, for example, you're really interested in physiotherapy and you happen to know a physiotherapist then they'll probably give you brilliant feedback. A retired physiotherapist might even be better because they'll probably have more time and be delighted to share their wealth of experience.

That priceless extra of experience

Another thing you can try is to ask a friend (or a family member) to do what you're doing i.e. they also write up a page on something they're really interested in and then you each read the other's page and write down feedback comments for each other. Now if you read your friend's page and then tell them that you think its great then that's nice in terms of encouragement but for real constructive communication to happen, the feedback needs to be more detailed.

The devil is in the detail

If you like their document then try to identify what specific points you like most about it. Try also to indicate if any points were a bit unclear or if there are parts which you'd like to know more about. Write down these detailed feedback comments and email them to your friend before you meet to discuss them. And of course ask your friend to do the same for you. Now its very important that you each carefully read and think about each other's feedback comments before you meet to discuss them because

every reading is a mis-reading

When you do meet to discuss each other's feedback comments, top of the agenda will be to verify that your interpretation of their feedback comments is indeed what they meant. Similarly, verify that their interpretation of your feedback comments is indeed what you meant.

The Irish are lovely people, its just a pity that they're all deaf

{Cartoon picture of boss telling employee only to tell him what he wants to hear} (not sure if the PC committee will allow that go to press). When you're both sure that you've clearly understood each other's feedback, then you must each be prepared to act on that feedback by making changes to your first draft. Don't delete your first draft. Copy and rename it so that you can look back over each revision. You can learn a lot by looking back over successive drafts of the final document.

Now if you're still friends after all of the above then you've both taken a very substantial first step towards developing your communication skills. But its only a first step on a long road and remember

practice makes perfect

The key to really developing your communication skills is to keep practicing. In fact, practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes permanent! Feedback makes perfect. That's why dialogue is so central to learning. {link to Ernest L. Boyer key principles of learning, namely, connectedness and dialogue}

Let's call the above cycle of thinking - writing - reading - writing - thinking - verifying - clarifying - editing step 1 towards developing your communication skills. Then the good news is that you're now half-way there. That is, there's only one more step. Its called step 2!

Step 2: Repeat step 1 approximately once per week for approximately ten years.

Ok so you can vary the topic and increase the page count but otherwise you're good to go. Best of luck. And if I can help in any way then please don't hesitate to post your draft document to this website for feedback. Just keep in mind that everything on the website is visible to the whole world.

How can I develop my presentation skills?[edit]

After a couple of cycles of the above thinking - writing - reading - writing - thinking - verifying - clarifying - editing process (phew - I had to think about that!) you and your friend might decide that you'd like to have a go at developing your presentation skills. Well actually, I've news for you. If you've survived the above couple of cycles then you've already taken a very substantial first step on this road too. What I mean is that anytime you're going to give a presentation on something (and hopefully it will be something that you're really interested in)

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm

(that's actually one of my favourites) its a really good idea to write down (including pictures, graphics etc) what it is you want to communicate with your presentation.

{More about Meyer's principles of multimedia learning, communication presentation development, take-home message etc}

Twelve Evidence-Based Principles of Multimedia Learning

An educational psychologist named Richard Meyer [Ref] spent a number of years conducting scientific research on so-called ‘multimedia learning’. His general approach was as follows. He’d split a class of approximately 60 students into two equal sized groups called a control group and an experimental group. He’d then present an identical lesson to both groups but in presenting it to the experimental group he’d alter one specific feature of the lesson. After that he’d give both groups an identical test to assess what they learned in the lesson. By then analysing how the two groups did in the test, he was able to estimate the effect which altering that one specific feature of the lesson had on the experimental group relative to the control group. For example, if the experimental group all did much better in the test then he concluded that the way in which he altered that one specific feature of the lesson had a positive effect.

When he was finished this research he wrote a book called ‘multimedia learning’ [Ref]. Now one of the most interesting things about this book is that it kind-of shows that there’s actually no such thing as ‘multimedia’. Please don’t tell anyone studying (or indeed working in) multimedia about this. Let me explain. 99.9% of the time, if you’re trying to present a concept to a target audience then you are in fact limited to just two media, namely, the visual (what they see) and the auditory (what they hear). A lot of Meyer’s work revolved around optimizing the use of these two media or channels. He concluded, for example, that its better to distribute your information equally between the two channels rather than packing it all into one channel. He presented his scientific research findings in the form of twelve key principles as follows:

1. Coherence Principle

People learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.

So I guess this means that if you’re preparing a slide for a presentation then its better not to try to pack in loads of information but rather to keep it simple and to the point. Also, there’s not much point in talking for 20 minutes about this one slide but rather to try to just state the key point concisely. The word ‘extraneous’ here is important. Whatever you show and say should be easily ‘connectable’ for the target audience. If there’s no obvious connection between what it is you’re showing and at the same time saying, then its less likely to make sense to the audience and if something doesn’t make sense then they’ll quickly forget it.

2. Signaling Principle

People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.

So, for example, using bold font and/or underlining keywords as above can help to direct the audience attention.

3. Redundancy Principle

People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration, and on-screen text.

This is an interesting one. Remember that graphics are purely visual and narration is purely auditory so if you arrange these two media well then that probably going to align nicely with the eyes and ears of the audience. If you put in a load of on-screen text also then that might actually distract attention from the graphics. This is a subtle one however, because another outcome of Meyer’s research is the effectiveness of what he calls a concise annotated illustration (CAI). This is a fancy name for a well labelled diagram. One way to reconcile these seemingly conflicting findings might be if you do prepare and present a CAI, then allow the audience a minute to look it over before delivering your narration on it. Another related outcome of Meyer’s research is the effectiveness of what he calls a concise narrated animation (CNA). A good example of this is where someone uses the animation feature of Powerpoint to ‘assemble’ a picture one component at a time and explains the function of each component as its added to the picture.

4. Spatial Contiguity Principle

People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.

That seems fairly reasonable. I suppose its when you try to pack in too much information that you might run the risk of violating this principle.

5. Temporal Contiguity Principle

People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.

Again, this seems reasonable, and probably the best way to ensure compliance with this principle is to keep things simple and to the point.

6. Segmenting Principle

People learn better when a multimedia lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit.

A famous educationalist called John Dewey once said: ‘we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience’. ‘Reflecting’ here means ‘thinking’. So try to build in time for the audience to connect related bite-sized elements of visual and auditory information and to reflect on how they relate to each other before moving on to the next piece if the jigsaw. Remember the whole presentation should all fit together like one big jigsaw.

7. Pre-training Principle

People learn better from a multimedia lesson when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts.

Here’s a related proverb: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” [Confucius]. “Divide and conquer” comes to mind also. Its good to break things down into simple concepts which the target audience can understand but remember the purpose of your presentation is also to help the audience to connect all of these concepts back together again.

8. Modality Principle

People learn better from graphics and narration than from animation and on-screen text.

This makes sense because graphics (visual) and narration (auditory) are making use of the two information-delivery channels (the eyes and the ears) whereas, animation and on-screen text are packing everything into the visual channel and not using the auditory channel at all.

9. Multimedia Principle

People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.

I think this means that two channels are better than one. However, I also think that there’s more to this one than meets the eye. As mentioned above, a concise annotated illustration (CAI) is generally a picture with word labels. As the audience studies the CAI, even though they look at a word label with their eyes, this activates an auditory response in their brain associated with that word.

10. Personalization Principle

People learn better from multimedia lessons when words are in conversational style rather than formal style.

Horray! When the critics give out over my use of conversational style, I’ll refer them to Meyer’s Personalization Principle. That will silence them!

11. Voice Principle

People learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.

I’d say that if I tried to put on a friendly human voice then my students would probably fall around the room laughing at me. There may be other psychological factors at play also, for example, if the audience is convinced that you’re the world’s foremost authority on the subject then they’ll probably learn better too. Or if they’re convinced that what you’re talking about is coming up in the exam then they’ll certainly pay close attention. How much they actually learn (as opposed to remember!) is another question.

12. Image Principle

People do not necessarily learn better from a multimedia lesson when the speaker’s image is added to the screen.

That’s interesting and kind-of makes sense in the sense that the speaker’s image probably doesn’t have any real connection with the concept which they’re presenting. Of course there is the whole issue of ‘body language’ but my understanding of Meyer’s research is that the ‘multimedia lessons’ which he used were presented on computers rather than by a hand-waving human.

Now Meyer's principles above are not only applicable to Powerpoint (or similar) presentations. They can be applied also to writing a report and including appropriate graphics with appropriate annotations. I have a lot of non-native English students and I regularly recommend to them that they include well labeled diagrams (CAI's) in their project reports. If they get part of their project working in the lab (or anywhere!) then I recommend that they make a short video (a CNA) of it working, put it on Youtube and insert a link into their report. Of course, these recommendations are every bit as valid for native English speaking (and writing) students as they are for non-native ones.

Actions speak loader than words

If I've managed to communicate to you the value of communication skills and how to go about developing them then that's great because then I've achieved what we set out to do. However, if you're still not convinced then please don't feel bad. Its not your fault. I'm the one who failed to convince you with words. In fairness, actions speak louder than words so if you're prepared to write a page (approx) on something that you're really interested in and email it to me (bob.lawlor@mu.ie) then my action in response will be to read it carefully, put in my feedback comments and email it back. I may use our email exchange in the final book as an example of communication but I will not name you without your written permission. Often people who contribute in this way prefer to have their identity protected e.g. by using a different name and that's perfectly fine if its what you prefer. If you're under 18 then I'm obliged by law to get the written consent of one of your parents. When the book becomes a best seller then you'll still have the option of having your identity made public and associated with your valuable contribution to the book. That could look good on your CV in the future.

Chapter 3. Background (optional reading)[edit]

3.1 Why write a textbook on communication skills?

I finished college in 1984 with a degree in electronic engineering and terrible communication skills. There were very few job opportunities in Ireland back then but I was fortunate to get a job with Sony in the UK where they had a professional broadcast equipment development lab. It was a really interesting job for a guy straight out of college and great experience too. After a few years there, it was decided that one of the projects which I was working on should go into production in Japan so the opportunity arose for me to move over there to help with developing the research lab prototype into a finished product. This was another great experience - I ended up living and working there for two and a half years. The Japanese are lovely people. One of the things that struck me about them was how effectively they worked as teams. I never managed to work out why they were so good at teamwork. I suspect that one of the factors behind it was their polite culture and their attention to detail when it comes to meetings. For example, if a team are due to have a project meeting tomorrow then they'll have a pre-meeting today to verify that everyone on the team is happy with the agenda and well prepared for tomorrow's meeting.

Eventually I left Sony and moved back to Ireland and tried to set up my own business which went pear-shaped so I went back to college to do a masters in electronic engineering and ended up getting a lecturing position in the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) where I had studied ten years earlier. After a number of years lecturing in DIT, I moved to Maynooth University where I've been lecturing ever since.

Two of the modules which I lectured (to undergraduates and post-graduates) were on communication skills. I always felt that these modules didn't really work well because they were kind-of 'bolted-on' to the programme. Communication skills are better developed experientially by integrating them throughout the programme rather than bolting them on.

In November 2011, a semi-retired professor called Lars Peter Jensen from Aalborg university in Denmark visited Maynooth and presented two workshops on the Aalborg Problem-Based Learning (PBL) system of education which they had developed over many years since their foundation in 1974. Lars Peter started as a student in Aalborg University in 1974 and had also lectured there for many years. During one of his workshops, Lars Peter showed a slide which we've reproduced in Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 PBL vs non-PBL comparative study

Figure 3.1 - PBL vs non-PBL comparative study [IFO 2004] [Kjærsdam 2004]

Figure 3.1 above shows the findings of a PBL versus non-PBL comparative study. This study was in fact one of the most longitudinal (30 years) and comprehensive higher education studies ever undertaken and is often referred to as ‘the Aalborg Experiment’ [Kjersdam 1994]. Aalborg University operated a fully integrated PBL education model from day one. This comparative study was carried out by independent consultants, Instituttet for Opinionsanalyse (IFO), in cooperation with the Danish magazine Ingenioren in which the directors of human resource management at 487 companies which employed graduates of the two universities (Aalborg University and the Danish Technical University (DTU)) were asked to rate the graduates under the six skills categories shown. The DTU education model is a conventional (non-PBL) as shown in Figure 3.2. in which a typical programme semester involves six taught modules running in parallel with each module having its own end-of-semester exam. Without the semester having a central theme of the programme discipline, learning is often fragmented with no obvious connection between topics covered in the separate modules.

Figure 3.2 Conventional Programme Semester

Figure 3.2 Conventional Programme Semester

By way of camparison, Figure 3.3 shows the corresponding structure of a fully integrated PBL semester. The key features here are: • The semester is front loaded with 3 taught modules and the group project work increases throughout the semester as shown. • The 3 taught modules and group project are all directly related to a central theme of the programme discipline. • The taught modules still have written end-of-semester exams worth 50% of the overall marks. The other 50% is allocated to the group project which is assessed via a group project report and individual interviews.

Figure 3.3 Integrated PBL Programme Semester

Figure 3.3 An Integrated PBL Programme Semester

3.2 Why I can't write this book alone

I probably could write it alone but I think it will be so much better if I can engage other people in writing it with me. That way the process used in writing the book will include the theme of the book i.e. communication. So who would I like to help me to write it? Well I'm not that fussy. I've invited 7.5 billion people so far. They might not all respond. But I'm ok with that. Possibly the most important co-authors would actually be target readers themselves i.e. the 2nd and 3rd level student age group which in Ireland equates to approximately 13 to 23 year-olds. If I can include written communications with and between target readers then this will mean that the book will include a dialogue with the target reader and dialogue in all of its many possible forms is the key to communication. Without dialogue the book is no more than information delivery and in our world of information overload, real communication can be a serious challenge.

3.3 Why target 13 to 23 year-old readers?