Critics of the role soft skills play in people’s and organization’s success often argue that soft skills cannot be taught. We disagree, and not just because we both get paid to help students develop their soft skills in our classrooms.

Soft skills cannot be taught like Microsoft Excel or organic chemistry. No textbook can give you lessons, formulas and practice questions to develop soft skills. (If only, they could.)

Soft skills are developed through experience. You learn by doing.

But doing is only part of the equation. Self-reflection and analysis of what worked and didn’t work are keys to developing these skills. The challenge is that the self-reflection doesn’t often yield as easy a result as reflecting on a missed math question. In the case of math, you check the formula against what you used and make sure your actual math is correct. The problem has to be one or the other of those things.

With soft skills, the list of why something went wrong could be endless. Take for instance a 5-minute presentation a team leader gives to his team. They are bored, unengaged and eager to get on with their day. What went wrong?

Here are some of the possibilities:

  • The introduction didn’t capture their attention.
  • The team leader didn’t speak loudly enough or with variances in his voice (monotone never works).
  • The room was too hot or too cold, seats were too close together or the room was too big.
  • The information could have been better communicated in writing or one-on-one.
  • The team leader didn’t believe in what he was saying — and the audience could tell because of his body language.
  • The team leader was giving a message that conflicted with his prior statements on the topic.
  • The audience didn’t need to know the information.
  • The audience had heard it all before from the last leader and the leader before her.
  • The technology (slides, projector, clicker, screen) didn’t work correctly.

These are but some of the many possible causes for a bad presentation. And, of course, some are outside the control of the speaker, although most are not.

Becoming an effective speaker requires learning from every experience of speaking. What worked? What didn’t work? And why or why not? Only with this careful introspection, coupled with the evaluation of honest feedback from people in the audience, can someone become a better speaker.

But so often our ability to accept that feedback is challenged by our ego. But we’ll talk about that next time.




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