I recently caught up with a good friend and we began talking about our jobs. When I told him I coached leaders on communication skills, he winced. I asked about his reaction and after some prodding, he confessed that he didn’t see the need for communication skills training.

Being a technical contributor, he thought soft skills were for those who didn’t have the smarts to be technical and needed to compensate with “manipulation” tactics. I knew exactly where he was coming from because I used to feel the same way. As a chemistry and economics major, I always thought of communication skills as optional and easy to pick up along the way.

Needless to say, my views have changed.

After further discussion, we agreed that, in general, technical leaders (lead engineers, head scientists, senior analysts, top programmers, etc.) have a tendency to be poor communicators especially when interacting with non-technical people.

So why are smart, technical people so weak at communicating?

They don’t take it seriously

Those who’ve honed their technical skills tend to categorize communication skills under nice-to-have instead of must-have. They view “soft” skills as decoration and without substance. I’ve even heard some express it as a cover up for weak technical ability.

This thinking occurs because many technical people are smart. They find communication skills intellectually simple. This may be the same reason why they hold art history and philosophy with less regard than computer science or chemical engineering.

Again, I can relate and to be fair, communication skills, intellectually, are straightforward. It is not difficult to understand that looking at your audience when you speak is more effective than looking at your notes. What changed my mind about these “soft and simple” skills was when I realized that:

Successful leaders use communication skills much more often than their technical skills.

Take a minute and think of a leader you admire. What do you think their day looks like?

Are they crunching numbers in Excel or writing lines of code? Are they combing through market analytics or designing new product features?

Most likely not.

That’s what they hire people under them to do. They spend their time inspiring others to adopt their vision, motivating and delegating their staff to execute and building strong relationships with their key clients and stakeholders to get more business. They are constantly using “soft” skills to manage themselves, their message and their interaction with others.

Being able to communicate effectively is the reason why Steve Jobs is the face of Apple and Steve Wozniak is not.

They are not expected to be strong communicators

Technical individuals are usually not required to interact with external clients so they are not expected to have polished communication skills. These expectations provide a false sense of security and reinforce the idea that communication skills are not important. This turns into a self-fulfilling prophesy where technical people are not offered and even denied quality communication skills training because it is not a part of their jobs. Back- and mid-office employees face similar biases.

There is a reason why front-office employees are usually the ones that become CEO. Not only did they bring in revenue, they are also best positioned to be the face of the company because of a strong executive presence and their ability to build deep relationships. It’s easy to think that those who make it to the executive suite do so because they are natural communicators. What most people don’t see is the disproportionate amount of communication skills training and coaching client-facing employees are offered along the way when compared to their internally facing counterparts.

As more of our clients work to break down the silos in their companies, we see major efforts to provide communication skills training to a broader employee population. Management teams are beginning to recognize the value of strong communication skills at all levels.

Even for employees with no aspirations for senior management or the C-suite, to be more effective in their role, they need to get their point across both concisely and persuasively.

It’s not their personality

The final reason why technical people communicate poorly is because they hold themselves back. The pervasive view is that strong communicators are extroverts and that can’t be taught.

There are two flaws to this view:

  1. Strong communication has nothing to do with being outgoing or shy. There are many talkative people with poor communication skills; they are usually the worst listeners. At the same time, there are many introverts who are very strong communicators. Being good at communicating is a function of deliberate practice.
  2. Communication skills are not innate. They can be taught. Like any skill, it takes proper training and continuous practice to move from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

So what now?

Acknowledge that communication skills are crucial to your professional and personal development and make it a priority to improve those skills.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Read the Exec-Comm blog filled with useful articles and industry news on communicating more effectively
  • Find opportunities to practice your communication skills
    • Join Toastmasters
    • Volunteer to give presentations and facilitate meetings
  • Request communication skills training from your manager, the HR department or the department in charge of employee learning and development

With any useful skill, the best time to start was last year.

The second best time to start is now.

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