Sharpen your communication skills to stand out in world of work

Claudia Coplon and Steve Clements know the power of words.

As the founders of Executive Speak/Write Inc., an Atlanta oral and written communications consulting firm, they are out to topple bad presentations, dull speeches, confusing e-mails and boring business letters. They want to transform the way professionals speak and write.

Good communication skills are at the heart of working well and accomplishing goals. Words can educate, inspire and call people to action, or, as is the case in many darkened lecture halls, put them to sleep. While technology has made it easier to e-mail, text, share videos and broadcast information than ever before, the devices don’t make the messages effective. That’s up to the operator.

Coplon and Clements are calling professionals to a radical concept in today’s lightning-paced business world: Think and edit before hitting "send" or approaching the podium.

Can it make a difference?

Six years after sitting in on a workshop led by Executive Speak/Write Inc., Tracey O’Malley is still asking “What would Claudia do? before writing an e-mail.

“I still remember the things I learned in that class. Now, I spend more time proofing an e-mail before I send it out. I remember my audience and make sure that I’m saying it the way I want to say it,” said O’Malley, who heads the people and organizational excellence team within the human resources department at the University of Georgia.

Executive Speak/Write has taught classes and developed curriculum for leadership and other professional programs for UGA staff and faculty. “Of all the programs we offer, people request business writing and speaking skills most often. They know that they’ll learn something they can put to use immediately,” said O’Malley.

Globally, we send 294 billion e-mails a day, according to the Radicati Group.

“There is so much information coming at us daily,” said Coplon, president of Executive Speak/Write Inc. and a former business writer, public relations consultant and corporate trainer. “If you want to grab your readers' or listeners' attention long enough to persuade, motivate and inform, you’ve got to differentiate yourself.”

It all comes down to chemistry, according to her partner, Clements, senior vice president, who has taught, trained and produced everything from corporate speeches to national network broadcasts, including the "1990s Mickey Mouse Club." He’s helped prominent talk show hosts, celebrities and top executives connect with their audiences.

“People want to work with people they know and are comfortable with,” Clements said. “You have to start a dialogue and form a relationship with your audience, whether that’s one person or 400 people, before you can begin to communicate.”

Lawyers must learn how to persuade a judge and jury to win cases. IT professionals have to be able to get their messages across to clients and co-workers. “It doesn’t matter how good you are at anything, if you can’t communicate it,” said Coplon.

Their relationship-driven approach to communications is based on encouraging clients to be themselves and to understand their audience.

Clements asks clients to remember how they relate to friends on a Friday night. Are they good storytellers, quick with a quip or always have a perfect example to illustrate a point? A more professional version of that approachable, relaxed, fun and passionate person is the one to take to the podium.

“We want to take people from the personal to the professional, while keeping their same voice. It’s often someone’s eccentricities that make him stand out,” he said. “Johnny Carson was funniest when he flubbed a joke and laughed at himself.”

Knowing they can be themselves helps take some of the fear out of public speaking. When people start to think of it as a conversation, not a speech, then they can learn relationship-building techniques that will help them connect with their audience.

Clements teaches people how to start strong with an anecdote, shocking statistic or a joke, rather than the dull "Today, I’m going to be talking about … .” He encourages them to end with real conclusions, to make eye contact and to get comfortable with their listeners.

“We’ve become PowerPointed to death by someone reading the slides on the screen,” he said. “You should use your own notes, or don’t have a PowerPoint at all. Let it be you who has the information and is going to make the difference.”

He customizes his training for individuals, teams and industries.

To form relationships in writing, Coplon advises her clients to ditch the "I," "We" or "The company wants" beginnings of messages. “Instead, consider your reader and show that you understand his needs,” said Coplon. Then “I need those interviews by noon” can become “Your information is a critical part of our annual report and will help our investors and customers understand our progress this year. Could you provide the results of your interviews by today?”

“The second e-mail is a conversation. It’s about you and me and the bigger picture, not just about my needs,” said Coplon. “That’s an ‘aha’ moment for many clients. They immediately see that they could respond to the second request without getting their hackles up.”

Once individuals understand the power of writing to their audience, Coplon shows them how to write concisely, accurately and distinctively. Many companies have templates for business letters that start out "Thank you for... ." “Forget the template and write about what impressed you about the gift or the experience,” she said. A fresh approach to a job interview thank you might read, “Without question, ABC company is a dynamic, forward-thinking organization. I know I’d like to be part of the team.”

“We all need to find ways to differentiate ourselves,” said Coplon. “Clear, concise communication can do that.”

Susan Havens, a senior manager at Pathstone Family Office, LLC, in Atlanta, took Coplon’s and Clements’ communication classes through Emory University’s Lifelong Learning Center to improve the financial services she offers clients.

“The higher you move up the ranks in business, the more contacts you have. I wanted to be able to communicate better,” she said. “When presenting or writing, people get so wrapped up in what they’re saying that they don’t think about how it could help others.”

She’s learned to consider her audience, be precise and get to the point when writing. Never afraid to speak in public, Havens also benefited from Clements' expertise.

“He encouraged us to be ourselves, to be professional and to enjoy the experience,” said Havens. “I’m more comfortable now when I speak and more efficient when I write. The classes definitely helped me sharpen my communication skill sets.”