If your communication skills need work, put in the effort

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the struggle we all face to be understood in the workplace.

Some of the issues are everyday in nature, arising from a poor word choice or lack of detail that makes a hash of simple instructions. But other communication issues are more detrimental to a person’s career progress, such as a communication style that keeps one’s boss from promoting a worker.

Job seekers also find communication to be a puzzle, with issues arising daily around networking, “branding” messages, interviews and emails to employers.

Whatever your current work status, if you feel there’s a particular communication issue holding you back, don’t turn away from the challenge. Push yourself to make an improvement, and to use outside resources whenever possible, such as classes or an adviser. When you evaluate your communication skills, review the following points:

Writing. Do you write easily and clearly? If not, remember that daily writing makes you quicker and better at this fundamental skill. Use a book or website with 10-minute practice problems to help you strengthen this muscle.

Presenting. Whether you're giving a group presentation, interviewing with a panel, or simply reporting to your boss, your ability to arrange information coherently, present it succinctly and answer questions clearly will reflect well on you. Don't let fear keep you from learning how to do this. The more you practice, the less fearful you'll be.

Accent. You don't have to be a new citizen to have accent issues. If you are frequently told "I can't understand you" or "Please speak slower," you may benefit from accent reduction exercises or a speech coach. Young workers in particular should consider that some speech patterns, such as ending sentences at a higher pitch, make people sound uncertain — and less ready for management.

Vocabulary. This is a harsh truth, but the smaller your vocabulary, the less bright you'll seem to others. You don't need a lot of obscure words to change that perception, but using the same words over and over is definitely not an image-booster.

Once you identify a communication issue to work on, you can almost certainly find a book, website, app or adviser to help you improve. To get you started, here are three books to consider.

"Own the Room" by Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013, $25). This is a good book for anyone who is serious about developing a better system of communication in work situations. But plan to commit some time to study and reflection, as this is not a quick read.

The authors spend the first third of the volume establishing the principles of leadership presence before jumping into actual communications strategies. Their goal is to help you develop what they call a “signature voice,” based on the interconnection between your beliefs, assumptions, communication skills and physical energy. Their promise is that your communications will flow naturally once you can speak confidently with your own voice.

"27 Powers of Persuasion" by Chris St. Hilaire (Prentice Hall Press, 2010, $25). For a quicker hit of communication tips and tactics, jump in anywhere in this book. The 27 chapters are arranged to stand alone, and each is stocked with real-life scenarios to illustrate the points.

But don’t skip the introduction, particularly if you are in job search. This is where St. Hilaire provides some of his own experiences, interlaced with more tips. I found his conversion to Buddhism to be as relevant as his campaign strategist work.

"How to Write It, 3rd Edition" by Sandra E. Lamb (Ten Speed Press, 2011, $18.99). I have recommended this book in my column before and probably will again. It's hard to beat a volume that offers both guidance on writing process and style, and step-by-step instruction on dozens of specific writing projects, from proposals to announcements to collection letters.

This is a desktop reference that I keep handy; if you want to improve written communications, you might find it as useful as I do.