Working Strategies: Books: Building communication skills

15 July 2023

Amy Lindgren

In an age when communication has been compressed into texts, tweets and tics (oops – that would be TikTok videos), it’s nice to know someone is still writing about how to communicate effectively.

That would be two someones, at least, featured here for their books on the subject. If you’ve been interested in upping your communication game, or want to help someone else do the same, these guides are a good place to start.

Breaking Through: Communicating to open minds, move hearts, and change the world: by Sally Susman, Harvard Business Review Press, 2023, $30. We start with a look at communications as a profession, and communicating as a professional skill to be honed.

Indeed, as the book’s cover blurb notes, “Communications can no longer be considered a soft skill. The ability to lead and drive the public conversation is a rock-hard competency.” As a careers professional — and professional communicator — I couldn’t agree more.

Susman, the chief corporate affairs officer for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, has been in corporate communications for almost four decades. In that time, she has developed a set of 10 tenets that serve both as practical guidelines and as the philosophical underpinning for her work.

The tenets themselves are basic but perhaps not conventional. They include such things as “disarm with humility, empower with truth” and “delight with humor,” alongside the more common “channel your intention” and “perfect your pitch.” To place the tenets in context, each of the 10 chapters is written in a personal narrative, with ample stories that highlight the point.

Breaking Through is a highly readable book, with a surprising amount of current political and cultural insight woven into the business and communications aspect of the content. For those working in corporate communications it might feel familiar in an affirming way; for others, this book can provide helpful guidance in becoming more professional in everyday communication.

As a side note, I may be behind on my reading but this is the first business book I’ve received for review that was written by a member of the LGBTQ+ community where that point was not part of the marketing. In other words, the message of the book is center stage, as it should be. That said, Susman places several of her stories in a context that includes reference to her wife or to LGBTQ+ issues. As someone who’s read hundreds of business books over the years, I found it a refreshing shift of perspective.

Better Presentations: How to present like a pro (virtually or in person): by Jacqueline Farrington, Ideapress Publishing, 2023, $19.95. One aspect of communication is presenting, whether that’s in-person or virtual, to large groups or just a handful of people. And, as numerous studies are eager to tell us, presenting is such a dreaded task that survey participants often select things like root canals as preferred activities.

Well, if you have that choice, go ahead and get your root canal. But for most of us, saying no when a presentation is assigned isn’t one of the options. This book by a professional presentation coach will help you feel more prepared and confident when it’s your turn at the podium.

Speaking of confidence, that’s one of the first issues the author tackles in the book, as one of the Three Cs of Presence (confidence, conviction, connection). It’s a revealing look at what goes on in our minds when asked to speak — the inner dialogue, the self-abasing thoughts, and other self-imposed barriers to peak performance. By replacing those negative thoughts with more constructive thinking, Farrington shows a pathway to being more confident when presenting.

Although the confidence-building tips could be reason enough to read Better Presentations, I found the real value to be the hard-to-find answers to questions every presenter encounters. Ranging from guidelines for makeup (for both men and women) to steps for improving articulation and use of the microphone, her advice feels like it’s coming directly from an expert just when you might need it most.

Along with the logistical aspects of presenting, Farrington also provides guidance for constructing the presentation itself, including ways to manage a Q&A session and tips for co-presenting. Both virtual and in-person sessions are covered, making the information adaptable for multiple situations.

As someone who frequently presents in a number of settings and formats, I still found something helpful in every chapter of Farrington’s book. It’s a solid guide for both new and seasoned presenters, and one which could keep you out of the dentist’s chair.

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Amy Lindgren owns a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at [email protected].

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