By Ashley Gibson
Member of IMA's Young Professional Committee and Director of Marketing, IMA St. Louis Chapter
In the business world, "soft skills" have taken on a vital role in professional development. Often times they can make or break impressions with colleagues and clients. Perfecting these skills will also help you gain experience and serve as important stepping stones as you prepare for higher-level jobs within your organization. When I say soft skills, I mean those intangible talents like time management and effective communications, skills which may appear basic but will sometimes prove difficult to maintain day-in and day-out.
Teaching soft skills has become difficult, if not impossible, to teach. An individual is not born with a mastery of them; rather, they're developed and shaped based on the situation. The goal is to become cognizant of whom you are communicating to and how to adapt the soft skills needed for that situation.
The two soft skills that come to mind that people struggle with are telephone and e-mail communications. I feel that the kryptonite to professionalism in telephone and e-mail communications is text messaging or instant messaging (IM).
Text messaging and IM have become the newest forms of communication within this century. As a result, some over-rely on this technology and use it to communicate more often than talking over a telephone. As a result, when individuals have to converse over the telephone, they become shy and uncomfortable. Also, IM has triggered text lingo (slang used to represent actual words). As a result, individuals are struggling with spelling and typographical errors. They then become reliant upon word processors to correct misspellings; however, this is not completely reliable as homonyms (words with the same pronunciation but multiple spellings and different meanings) can go undetected.
When it comes to professional e-mail and telephone communication, I offer the following basic rules of thumb:
1) Keep e-mails organized, simplified, short, and to the point. No one wants to read through paragraphs and paragraphs of information. If something has that much information associated with it, it is probably best communicated in person or over the phone.
2) Always use a greeting, closing, and signature within e-mails. Greetings are a good way to begin e-mails with a proper, sophisticated tone/mood. "Hey Man!" is most likely considered inappropriate and disrespectful. A signature is also a good idea to include within an e-mail for further communication or even contact information referencing. Personally, I have a short signature I use for replies and a more formal signature when I am composing e-mails.
3) Read through e-mails many times before sending. You will be surprised what you will discover from rereading an e-mail before sending.
4) Avoid as many misinterpretations as possible. Often times, e-mails (much like IMs) can be misunderstood, because there is no body language or expressions associated with them.
5) Compose complete sentences with complete words. Do not use lingo or abbreviations. Also, make sure each sentence is not a run-on.
6) Beware of what you write--it could end up in a thread. When you compose an e-mail to someone, you never know who may receive that email later. E-mails can be forwarded to anyone.
7) Beware to whom you send to--it could end up sent to the wrong recipient. Selecting various contacts or contact lists can be done very simply with e-mail systems. With this said, you always want to make sure your recipients are correct.
8) When calling/answering the telephone, always introduce yourself and the company you are representing. You would expect this if someone randomly called you.
9) If on a conference call, please mute your phone when you are not speaking. Background noise can be extremely distracting and disrespectful to the speaker. This is probably one of the rudest things I have heard during conference calls.
10) If on a conference call with multiple people, identify yourself before speaking. I recommend saying, "This is [name]. I...." I find this extremely helpful, especially when someone is recording minutes. If no one knows who is asking the question or providing a thought, who are they to address in response?
11) Be courteous, respectful, and thankful for that person taking time out of their day to talk with you. Telephone calls are more and more inconvenient as people are on the go or in places where talking aloud can be cumbersome. This is why email has grown in popularity.
12) If someone is explaining something to you on the phone, paraphrase back to him or her. This will ensure that you understand what was spoken and that you were paying attention. I find this to be extremely helpful when meeting with clients.
Overall, e-mail and telephone communication is not rocket science if you follow simple guidelines of professionalism.