Improving your communication skills

Marc Powell, athlete turned Strategic Relationships Executive, shares his experiences.

From the age of 18 to 25, my CV basically read as ‘Athlete’. My ‘workplace’ was a judo hall and my ‘boss’ was a Head Coach. I didn’t have a degree and I had no real experience of an office-based job. 

When I retired from professional sport, I was at my lowest point. I felt lost, I had no focus. I knew I somehow needed to find a career that gave me the feeling of fire and passion I used to have when competing. 

I’m registered blind. After spending some time reflecting on what really matters to me, I decided I wanted to help make our world a more accessible place and change attitudes toward visual impairment. I researched job opportunities with different sight loss charities but found there were none that really fitted me. The jobs that existed required specific experience or qualifications that I didn’t have. 

So what could I do? I decided the best way to make a potential employer understand that I could be an asset was to get myself in front of them. 

Growing up I was very shy, so I really had to push myself to get out there. I secured a meeting with a senior member of staff at the largest sight loss charity in the country. (I later found out that they agreed to meet partly because they were intrigued by my approach: a complete stranger contacting them out of the blue. Shows being bold can work.) I worked hard on a presentation, encapsulating all of the ideas I had. 

It worked. Because I believed in myself and what I was saying, I was able to be persuasive and got the job. I’ve been able to both climb up the ladder and implement real change. I have no doubt that it has been down to my interpersonal skills that I am where I am now: skills I only discovered I had because I pushed out of my comfort zone. 

Making such a drastic career transition wasn’t easy. But I’m proof that it is achievable. Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learnt about effective communication and interpersonal skills: 

1. Practice communicating with others

Interpersonal skills are just like any other: you have to train in order to get better and gain confidence.

Push yourself to set small challenges to improve your communication – maybe start a conversation with someone who you’ve seen every morning on your train but have never actually chatted to. Or, as you gain in confidence, sign yourself up to networking events or volunteering for a charity.

You may discover you’re better at it than you think: I learnt that I was an effective communicator when I was volunteering to try to find auction prizes for a charity: I succeeded where others had failed. You never know what skills you’ve got until you push yourself to find out. 

2. Set yourself small goals

Designing my presentation was a manageable goal that helped me hone down what I wanted to communicate to my future employer. Work out the different skills you’d like to improve on and look for ways to achieve that through small steps. It might be completing an online course, or finding someone to practice with. 

3. Don’t just send an email

We’re all guilty of hiding behind a computer at times. Often, the way to be remembered and to get instant answers is to simply make a phone call, rather than using email as your only communication tool. You’ll stand out from other applicants and create a rapport before you’ve even met a potential employer. 

Or go a step further like I did, and set up a face-to-face meeting. It doesn’t have to involve a full-blown presentation – even just an informal chat over coffee could open doors. 

4. Focus on what skills and attributes you do have, rather than on the experience you don’t have

When I first began searching for my career, I focused on the fact that I didn’t have a degree and had no relevant experience to the area I wanted to get into. It wasn’t until I began to play on my strengths (such as my interpersonal skills) that I got any positive response. 

Tailor your CV around your attributes and take confidence from your skills and abilities. You’ll be able to talk enthusiastically and knowledgeably about them and show how you can be an asset to a company or team. 

5. People respond to confidence and assertiveness

This is probably one of the most important tips I can give. Everyone goes into interviews feeling nervous, but the trick is to never let them see you sweat. If you’re confident, it puts everyone else at ease and they feel confident in you – so fake it until you make it. 

If my blank CV has got me to where I am now, you should feel empowered to go for it too… good luck!

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