Want to learn something useful? Don’t start with body language

29 Mar 2021

Are you thinking about improving your communications skills? What specific skill will you learn first? Body language, tone of voice, active listening, eye contact? There are so many to choose from.

Here’s my advice — don’t learn body language. In fact, learn none of them. At least not yet. Don’t learn them until after you’ve learned the fundamentals of good communication.

Good communication is built on strong foundations

Communicating a message is like constructing a building. Buildings can be ugly, or beautiful but they always need to be functional. You can design the most eye-catching building in the world, but if it isn’t functional it is a waste of space and materials. Functionality requires good design, solid foundations and the right internal structure. If the foundations and structure are weak, the building isn’t useful (or safe!).

Creating messages for communicating with people is a lot like designing a building. Communication requires strong foundations and good structure. Messages must be clear, concise, and well-structured if they are to be understood. By the way, I’m not talking about the types of communication that leaders give on stage. I’m talking about every day, run-of-the-mill work communication. The type you use every day in your job.

Building on the construction analogy (pun intended!), things like body language, tone of voice and gestures are the beautiful parts of the building. They may be pretty but they don’t create a solid foundation or a strong structure. You can give your team instructions using perfect tone and body language, but that doesn’t make your message effective. If your message isn’t clear, organized, or concise, you have not built something functional.

If you shouldn’t start improving your communication by learning body language, where should you start? What are the foundational skills of clear concise communication? What will make the biggest improvement to your communication?

This is where the Pareto principle can help us

The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. This means you should look for the 20% of skills that will improve 80% of your communication.

This leads us to the question. What are the 20% of communication skills that improve 80% of communication?

One way to find what makes a good communicator is to think about what makes a bad communicator. Bad communicators at work ramble. They mix their messages, fail to get to the point or fail to even have a point. Bad communicators take longer to say what they need and are less clear about saying it. None of those things involves body language, tone of voice, or eye contact. If you ask people what makes a bad communicator, they are unlikely to say ‘bad body language’ as the main cause.

At work, people who are clear and concise are generally better communicators. They aren’t poetic, and they don’t usually deliver their message through the medium of dance. What they do is get to the point quickly and clearly.

If you want to focus on 20% of the skills that make 80% of the different, improve your ability to be clear and concise.

There you have it — be clear and concise and you’ll be a better communicator

Oh, if only it was that easy. You see, the problem with being clear and concise is that it is a goal. It isn’t a method.

To be clear and concise you need tools and methods to help you build your message. These tools need to be simple and they need to apply to 80% of communication at work.

Luckily, such methods exist. If you want to learn how to be clear and concise, you should focus on getting the first minute right.

Check out these articles for how to start:

You can find more information about these methods in my book The First Minute.

So, is my advice really to not learn body language? Of course not — it is important —– it just isn’t the most important thing to learn first. After you have got the first minute right, then you can pick one of the other communication skills to learn. Which one do I suggest? Well, that’s a topic for another article. 😊