Written communication is an important skill, for it is often our first — and potentially — lasting impression of a person. We’ll discuss good writing and give tips for how to write better.

 

Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham talk about the important soft skill of written communication in this episode. Among the topics they cover are:

  • How our writing is often where people first encounter us
  • Why writing conveys what’s inside our minds
  • Writing tells us about how someone sees the world, sees his or her role in the world and what he wants to accomplish.
  • Understanding audience and its role in writing well
  • How writing in our own language may not be the best way to write
  • The writer’s role as a “reader’s advocate” and taking the reader’s perspective on your writing
  • Putting actions steps early in writing
  • Good writing encourages reader action
  • How writers inadvertently discourage their readers
  • Why the pile of emails to get to exists and why it’s the email writer’s fault
  • The 3-sentence and 4-sentence email pledge
  • How getting away from typewriters has spawned worse writing
  • The deadly action of Reply All and what it says to your reader
  • Respecting and using your awareness of your audience to improve your writing
  • No matter where you are in your writing life, a list of easy ways to dramatically improve your writing today
  • The value of spell checkers and grammar checkers
  • Why big words might not be your writing friend
  • Why great words should not be overused
  • How verbs really do drive sentences
  • Self-editing and outside editing help
  • An easy, fun way to edit your writing
  • The financial equivalent of wasted words in your writing
  • Tips for helping readers find key information
  • Making your writing “sticky”
  • How subject lines and file names can help the recipient of your communication
  • The number one worst thing to do with email

Next Week

We’ll be looking at another soft skill on our list of 55 soft skills. Email us at podcast

Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham talk about specific soft skills that fuel innovation and guide you when you are working in a group.

Bob Graham (‘0:00’): Coming up, we’re going to talk about some specific soft skills that guide you when you are working in a group. That and more in just a few seconds.

Introduction

Graham ‘0:19’: Welcome to Episode 7. It’s already been a week. I’m Bob Graham and with me is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others employ soft skills over the course of our long careers. Not that long, but long. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills. We’re going to show you that in the next few minutes.

Setting the Stage

Graham ‘0:56’: Toby, let’s talk about soft skills being used in groups. But before we do that, can you just set up where we are in this whole continuum. We have been doing this look at soft skills in various categories we created over the last couple of weeks.

Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:08’: We’ve got our four groups of soft skills. We started out in Episode 5 with Individual soft skills. We talked about loyalty and time management and others that you bring to work that are really internal and you need to have to operate successfully in the work environment. Then we moved outside the individual to those we call Nexus soft skills that help us interact one-on-one with others. In Episode 6, we talked about written and oral communication, patience, empathy, emotional and social intelligence, those types of things.

Sorting Out Your Soft Skills Inventory

Porterfield ‘1:51’: I hope that as our listeners heard those and processed through some of those soft skills, they said some of those come naturally in me. Maybe there are others that you look at and you say that you don’t even think about it. You already developed that skill, maybe it’s making presentations or writing. You were just trained in it and you just have it as part of who you are now. To that, we say, that’s great. We hope that you recognize those soft skills that you have and you use them. We hope you look at the others and say how can I build strength in those? How do I bring those into play? How do I make them part of how I naturally engage?

Soft Skills for Innovation

Porterfield ‘2:31’: We are excited now to share some of these soft skills that really make a difference in groups. I was just thinking, if I have to be put on one more team at work, I am going to go out of my mind. It’s all about groups and teams these days. Someone the other day said to me that when it comes to innovation in the academic world and in the classroom, you aren’t going to lock yourself in a room and suddenly come out with a great idea of how you are going to innovate in the classroom. It’s going to be in a group. It’s going to be people bringing different experiences with technology, things they have done that worked and failed, but it’s when a group brings things together.

When a group gets together and problem-solves, that’s where our real innovation comes from.

Organizations that Work in Groups

Graham ‘3:15’: You see that over and over. Look at NASA, a great example of an organization where you get a lot of people around the room to solve problems. Anyone who you meet who works at NASA will tell you that they have big teams that solve big problems and small problems. No one does it alone. We see that with SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, and we see it even in small companies. I work with some of my clients and they will get all of the employees around the table to troubleshoot a customer service issue, a technology issue or even just something they are worried about that might be a competitive worry.

Porterfield ‘4:00’: Right on track, Bob. Let’s go ahead and nail down what we identified as being the Group soft skills so our listeners have an idea of what we are talking about. These are much more recognizable and actionable. You see those in people who are able to effectively influence a group. 

The Group Soft Skills List

Porterfield ‘4:29’: The Group soft skills list includes:

  • the ability to delegate
  • the ability to make decisions and be decisive,
  • the ability to be analytical (to bring in different aspects, thoughts and perspectives and understand how they fit together)
  • the ability to communicate at multiple levels (not just what we talked about before, but to communicate up to leadership so they understand where you’re group is headed, and to also be able to communicate down and across, that wide spread)
  • cultural awareness (because in groups you are going to find people from diverse cultures, which is a huge benefit when we are trying to solve problems and be innovative; to be aware so that you aren’t making everyone be the same, but to leverage those differences)
  • to conduct and facilitate meetings
  • to mentor and develop others
  • to be innovative (to be sensitive to find those new ideas and drawing them out, while not looking for those marginal improvements, but to really look at something that jumps the curve and really changes things)

Revolutionizing Industries

Porterfield ‘5:56’: We talked about the Guy Kawasaki TED Talk video, where he talks about the key elements of innovation. He recognizes that the people who used to cut ice out of the ponds were not the people who created ice machines. The people who created ice machines weren’t the people who made refrigerators. They missed that ability to have huge innovations. Other groups came in and revolutionized industries. That innovative juice to work in a team, to be a team member, to be a team player and to be able to lead and direct and build teams and to collaborate is what this list is all about. It’s hearty list for us.

Graham ‘6:42’: Is it fair to say that we have shifted gears here because I am thinking of this list and comparing it to the Individual soft skill and Nexus soft skill lists that we created and this one really sounds like manager-type qualities. You are going beyond getting the work done. Now you are looking at the work and how to achieve it in a broader perspective through working with different parts of an organization or different stakeholders, whether it’s customers or vendors or maybe even competitors or different divisions within a company. So that all of those things are upping the ante here and moving to a higher level in some ways. It’s also important that as we talkthrough these Group soft skills that we are pretty good at the ones before these. 

It’s not like you could jump the rails and skip the Individual ones and that Nexus ones and just go to this Group soft skills list and be a great manager.

Moving Past the Peter Principle

Porterfield ‘7:53’: That’s what most of us can identify with. We’ve seen that person who officially moves into the management role and isn’t able to delegate, isn’t able to make decisions, isn’t able to collaborate. So we often term that as the Peter Principle, or someone who has been promoted beyond their skills level. That’s our issue here. We share this view. When we look at these soft skills, we could have someone who is not in a management role and they could have these Group skills. They are having significant influence on their workplace, in groups, in one-on-one and beyond. Our hope is that organizations and individuals grasp these and not only want to develop them, but make sure that the people who have these soft skills are the ones that get promoted.

Porterfield ‘8:51’: We see it in the job descriptions. We did a huge study of job postings and we saw some of these soft skills come out. But for an organization to really be able to pinpoint these soft skills, they have to say these are the specific soft skills we are looking for in a leader. Once you pin the soft skills down, how do you articulate them? How do you identify the person who has the ability to to delegate, to be a team player? Not only do you have to ask for it, but you need to be able to assess it and recognize it.

Squandering Soft Skills Mavens

Graham ‘9:24’: What comes to mind for me is that someone who has these soft skills in an organization and they are being squandered. Someone is going to see that person is really good at those things and make them an offer. I know of someone who was working at a coffee shop that had really good delegation skills in this coffee shop. When she worked, everyone knew that things would get done. Everyone got their order really efficiently. She was there for two months, then she wasn’t there. I asked one of the other baristas what happened and they said, “One of the customers offered her a job making four times as much as what she made at the coffee shop.” She left and the other employees were really upset about the situation. That’s what happens. if you don’t leverage those soft skills within the employees within your organization, you have a flight risk because people want to use those so0ft skills. 

As you develop these soft skills, your opportunities and chance to get paid more at work increase greatly.

Graham ’10:39′: The person who hired this girl saw that they could use her soft skills to help their organization and they wanted to compensate her well for those soft skills. Foremployers, they run a risk here when they are not properly assessing these soft skills and not leveraging them within their existing employee base, as you say, when they are not hiring and thinking about them. 

Drawing Attention to Your Soft Skills Strengths

Graham ’11:06′: For that person who is demonstrating these skills, it’s an opportunity. These soft skills increase your value within the workplace. These soft skills give you the ability to do other things. You may need to remind your bosses that you can do these things. Sometimes they are not looking at it. 

An Example of Leveraging Your Own Soft Skills

Graham ’11:27′: I had a job where they needed someone to go around the country and do presentations at hotels. No one else wanted to do it. Other employees didn’t want to travel around all summer. I offered to do it because I can do presentations. They knew that because I had done some webinars and other public-facing stuff. They said, “Sure, Bob, go ahead.” It was a great opportunity. I got a summer where I got to pick the cities around the country that I went to and I got to use a really powerful skill of mine, which was connecting with people through presentation, in an organization where they would have had to bring someone in to do that. Fortunately for me, when the opportunity was made available, I raised my hand and said I would love to take this on. What I find is that people either don’t know about the opportunity because employers are not doing that inventory of soft skills or putting these chances out there. Or the employee is going, they should know that I have these skills so they will ask me to use them. 

One of the things we are finding is that the connection between the employer and employees on these soft skills isn’t always as finely tuned as it is with the technical skills.

The Manager’s Edge

Porterfield ’12:42′: I agree. We also could speak to the managers. Those people who are already in a management role and have a team. Are they recognizing the value of their employees’ soft skills? Are they appreciating their employees’ soft skills and giving credit to the employees who exhibit them? The appreciation goes a long way to helping people feel recognized in an organization. it can diffuse some of that flight risk.

Graham ’13:19′: We are more engaged employees when we are using our strengths in different ways. 

Using our soft skills makes us feel more invested and it makes us feel like it’s more fun to go to work each day than to just be doing the work stuff. Having these extra soft skills opens doors to different outlets for creativity.

Graham ’13:31′: Some people do like to only move the widgets from Point A to Point B. But some people want to be challenged in new ways and be evolving in an organization. That’s another part of this list.

That Group Soft Skills List Again

Graham ’13:54′: Could you give us that list of Group soft skills one more time? 

Porterfield “14:09′: For Groups, we have identified 12 soft skills. They include:

  • the ability to delegate
  • the ability to make decisions
  • to be analytical
  • to be able to communicate at multiple levels
  • to be culturally aware
  • to gather locate and share information
  • to conduct and facilitate meetings
  • to suggest improvements
  • to mentor, develop others, inspire
  • to be innovative
  • to work in teams, be a team member, team player
  • to lead people, direct others, build teams, collaborate

Getting Better at Each One

Graham ’14:46′: That’s quite an extensive list and a lot to chew on. As we have said in other episodes, the first thing to do is to take an inventory of where you are on these things. Take that list and rate yourself. So 5 is the best and 1 is where you need a lot of improvement. Do that inventory, then pick off one or two and work on them first. For instance, say I am going to work on my delegation skills. What would that look like? I’m going to inventory the tasks that come in to me each day. I’m going to say, am I the best person to that task or would someone else on my team be better at it. All of the soft skills need you to start thinking about it. And once you start thinking about it, you start to do things differently. Over time, hopefully, it becomes part of your DNA. You get good at something so it becomes part of you. It just is. You don’t even think about it anymore.

Previewing Next Week’s Show

Graham ’15:45′: With that, we should probably draw this episode to a close. Let me tease next week’s episode. First, let me ask people to subscribe to the Serious Soft Skills podcast, if you are new to us. You can subscribe on iTunes. Give us a review. We’d love to get your feedback. You can contact us at anytime at podcast@serioussoftskills.com. Or you can tweet us at @realsoftskills. Those are two ways to get in touch with us. You can also go to our website, SeriousSoftSkills.com. We hope to hear from you. We want this to be a dialogue. We would love to hear your questions or insights. If you give us an insight or question, I promise you, we will put it on the air in an upcoming episode. You have my word on that. So with that we will close this episode with a quick tease for next week, when we will talk about Enterprise soft skills. That’s our fourth category of soft skills. They’re really the ones that help you influence how an organization moves forward. So we hope you will join us next week. Our new episodes come out every Wednesday. Until then, thank you for listening, good day, and Toby, your favorite thing in the whole wide world, good soft skills.

Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham share some cutting-edge research on soft skills we obtained from a survey of almost 500 business people. They further dig into results among various groups, including people seeking jobs, workers without leadership roles, mid-level managers, executives, and the self-employed. It’s great stuff that will give you new insights on soft skills.

Bob Graham ‘0:00’: Coming up, we will share some cutting-edge research on soft skills we obtained from a survey of almost 500 business people. It’s great stuff that will give you new insights into how soft skills are really being used in the workplace. That and more in just a few seconds.    

Graham ‘0:28’: Welcome to Episode 4 of Serious Soft Skills. I am Bob Graham, and with me, as always,  is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college, we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others use soft skills in various jobs over our careers. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills.

Graham ‘0:59’: So today, Toby, we are going to do things a little differently. We’re going to talk about some research we have done in the field of soft skills that we have only released to a list of very few people. So this is breaking news. If I had a glass, I would break it. This is big stuff.

Why This Research Matters

Graham ‘1:29’: Before we get into the research, Toby, why don’t you set up for people what the research found. Of course, whenever you are looking at research, the first question is who did you ask the questions to? Can you walk through how we got this data we are about to share?

Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:45’: Bob, I am going to throw you a curve ball because I think we need to actually take a step further back because one of the problems with research is you have to cover why. Otherwise, you can look at all these results and people say, “Who cares?” Let me frame it up with why we even got into this and why we reached out to our network for some answers. It started with us looking around. As we were developing that sensitivity to soft skills, we’d have observations. We’d say that we had seen leadership do this and I see the importance of communication. We usually refer to these as anecdotal or experiential evidence. We get these little snippets. They almost turn into sound bites that you might hear on the news. We’ve even seen this in news clippings. We start to pull all these pieces together, but as people who look at research, we have to stop and say, “Hold it. Is that really a unique experience I have had and it doesn’t apply to anyone else, anywhere else?” That is what brought us to doing the survey and reaching out to our network to ask the question and validate that soft skills are really important, which soft skills are important, and who are they important for.

Porterfield ‘3:06’: Our initial survey did that and it cleared up a lot of items and it brought some focus in. It also motivated us to say this kind of work needs to be done. Back to the survey. Bob, can you give us a little background on how we reached out to collect that data?

How We Found Participants

Graham ‘3:24’: We went new school, I would say. In the past you would try to find people to do surveys by mail or by fax, and I can remember doing some surveys that way. But here, we actually used some new stuff called social media and email. We leveraged LinkedIn. We used databases we each have of LinkedIn connections. Those connections we sent an email to asking them to fill out a short survey. It took less than five minutes. It wasn’t real long and involved. We also posted it on social media, on our Facebook pages, on LinkedIn and on Twitter. We got really good response there. And we did some networking, one of the soft skills. I sent it out to a few people in my network, who were kind enough to share with their networks of people. We saw a spider-web kind of thing. We received almost 500 responses to this in a very short time, less than a week. We continue to get responses to this day, which highlights to me, one, how valuable social media is as a networking tool, and two, how important this research is to people. They want to contribute and they want to know what we are discovering.

Graham ‘4:54’: Toby, tell us now what that led to.

Porterfield ‘4:57’: Certainly it’s encouraging when you see a large response like that. One, for us, because it shows that it’s a topic that’s really important and when you send a survey out and you don’t get any response, you hear crickets, you probably aren’t into something interesting. But when you get this level of response this quickly, clearly it’s a hot button for a lot of people.

A Diverse Pool of Responses

Porterfield ‘5:16’: What we saw in the results was really exciting because we asked people for age ranges so we would get an understanding where they are in their lifespans and their careers. We have great coverage over people who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50, and 60s. We even had a couple of responses from people in their 70s. Really a nice cross section. In previous podcasts, we talked about how we think that soft skills are really critical in all phases of a career, and I am really pleased that we received responses from across that generational workforce.

Porterfield ‘5:56’: The other thing that we see that is a positive is that the responses are representative of our potential audience. We saw in the ages and we saw a fairly even split between male and female participation, and we saw participation across what we call employment strata. We saw responses from people who are unemployed, people who are employed with no supervisory responsibilities, people with supervisory responsibilities and senior leadership. We’ve got that spectrum to see where soft skills are really being valued across that spectrum. It’s the kind of pool we want to be looking at when we look at that data.

Graham ‘6:40’: That would mean the data is largely valid because it’s a large brush stroke, not highlighting one specific group. I also just want to clarify that if I recall correctly, it wasn’t unemployed, it was people looking for work at the moment.

Porterfield ‘6:57’: Correct.

Graham ‘6:59’: There is a difference. So everyone in the survey was in some way involved in the workforce. The other thing that struck me was we had five or six categories for people that were preset for their job level, and we had the Other category. The Other group was really large, with people who described themselves as entrepreneurs, self-employed, as brokers. It was really an eye-opener to me because all of these people took the time.

For both of us, it was a moment of discovery that soft skills really are legitimately making a difference.

The First Results

Graham ‘7:38’: With that as a backdrop, Toby, why don’t you tell us what some of those results actually were?

Porterfield ‘7:42: As we have discussed before, we have identified over 50 soft skills. We didn’t want to burden the respondents with all 50 of these. We didn’t think we would get a usable response. We would really wear out our people. We chose a few representative soft skills from each of our groupings. Some are more internal, personal type soft skills. Some when you are dealing one-on-one with people. Some when you deal with groups. And then some that address the greater organization, the soft of enterprise issues. We asked them to rate those six items to get some feel across that spectrum of employment situations.

Porterfield ‘8:30’: What we found was that the No. 1 group was one-on-one, the communication skills. That came out on top. We asked respondents to rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, and that came out with a 4.65, which is really high for an average.

Graham: ‘8:46’: Five would be the high, correct?

Porterfield ‘8:48’: Yes. Communication came out on top, followed by critical thinking, the personal enthusiasm, which is a really internal item, then teamwork, stress management and cultural awareness. As a ranking, that is interesting in itself. But it also can be a bit misleading because I said the lowest ranking one was cultural awareness. That doesn’t mean it was rated very low. It had a 3.96 on a 5-point scale. None of these categories were truly low. What is interesting is that those communication skills are coming out on top.

Digging Deeper

Graham ‘9:38’: That is consistent with a lot of the research we’ve seen. I know that the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) does an annual survey and that survey typically talks about the needs of employers. Employers want in that survey employees with more verbal communication and written communication skills. We see that in other research we have done and again, that keeps cropping up. What’s different is probably is we’re taking this broad cross-section. Most of the other research we’ve seen has been really focused on one specific group — employers, college graduates, university programs or alumni. I am not familiar with any other broad cross-section of this nature that really gets at the bigger picture.

Porterfield ‘10:32’: Definitely saw some new information and some affirmation for those anecdotal issues that we see in the news, that we have experience. When you can reach out to a group of nearly 500 people and get confirmation, that’s a good indication that we are headed in the right direction.

There’s a need for soft skills for those people in those positions that they are already recognizing.

Porterfield ‘10:56’: What we asked them was to please rate these soft skills on a scale of 1 to 5 based on how much they affect your success.

The people who are identifying these communication skills and critical thinking and so forth in the ranking are recognizing and attributing them to their success in their current roles.

Porterfield ‘11:19’: I think we have really struck something here.

Graham ‘11:22’: One of the things I think we saw is that soft skills are relevant at all phases of a career, based on these survey responses.

Everyone Sees The Value of Soft Skills

Porterfield ‘11:35’: Yes, and what we saw was that as we broke the respondents into groups based on how they identified themselves, as whether they were non-supervisory, supervisory or senior leadership, we could then compare how they rated each of those groupings of soft skills, how the soft skills are used across the different roles across an organization. True to what we thought we would encounter, soft skills are seen as being critical to success across the organization. We did see some slight variations in it.

Supervisors, Non-Supervisors See Same Needs

Porterfield ‘12:17’: The non-supervisory people identified those one-on-one type of soft skills as being the most important, which is not totally surprising. But it’s good affirmation. Similarly, we saw that with the supervisory people. If we looked at that and asked if that sounded right, I would say, yes, because a supervisory person, to be successful in their work, needs to be developing their employee group. A lot of times that’s being done in a mentoring, coaching and one-on-one type of situation. So I was very pleased to see those types of skills being rated highly for both supervisory and non-supervisory employees.

Graham ‘12:55’: It’s also the kind of work they are doing. In that capacity, I don’t want to say lower levels, but at the more tactical level, you’re really trying to make things happen that are specific tasks. These employees aren’t focused so much on the visions part of the organization. They need to worry about the get-it-done part. That would suggest you would have more discussions one-on-one about how do we achieve this result, if it’s getting more widgets in the warehouse on a Friday afternoon or staffing over the weekend because Trudy’s going away or something like that. Is that consistent with what you think we found?

Porterfield ‘13:37’: Yes. True to that, we move to that senior leadership group and look at what they ranked highest. We did see that senior leadership reach more toward those enterprise soft skills, as we call them, like change management, critical thinking, those types of soft skills, where they have much more influence on the organization as a whole.

Porterfield ‘14:00’: Seeing that dichotomy — the valuing the one-on-one type of connection and valuing the higher-level soft skills — it’s really good to see that differences across all the strata of employment.

Soft Skills and the Self-Employed

Porterfield ‘14:17’:  We had another interesting discovery that we had not expected to tease out. But as you mention, we had many people reply Other to specifying the role in their organization. They identified themselves as being self-employed, entrepreneurs, brokers, clearly people who are running their own businesses or are independent contractors. They also had similar valuations of soft skills and we saw again, those one-on-one skills came out on top, followed closely by the Enterprise grouping.

The independent contractors, the self-employed jump right from the one-on-one interaction to change management, critical thinking, shaping the organization.

Porterfield ‘15:03’: Again, that wasn’t what we were expecting, but once you look at it, you say that wouldn’t be surprising for a person who has a very strong independent role or is the champion or leader of a company or an entrepreneur.

Summarizing Our Findings

Graham ‘15:24’: We’ve given a lot of bullet points, big picture and small picture. Can you sort of summarize this so we have a couple of takeaways?

Porterfield ‘15:32’: Number 1 would be that we validated that people value the role of soft skills in the organization and in their personal success. That interest in soft skills spans ages, genders and roles across the organization. The communication-oriented and critical thinking skills are perceived as the most important across that bandwidth of employees. Roles within the organization influence the sets of soft skills they find most valuable. The soft skill set may change over the span of a career.

Graham ‘16:19’: That’s a great summary. Thank you. If you would like a copy of the white paper we put together with even more details on these results, you can go to our website, SeriousSoftSkills.com. If you would like to comment on what we have been talking about today or if you want to send us suggestions for show topics, you can send an email to podcast@serioussoftskills.com or you can tweet us at @realsoftskills.

Next Week’s Show

Graham ‘17:03’: That’s it for this week. Let me tease what we are going to do next week. We’re going to take a deep dive into something we touched on this week, Individual soft skills. We’ll look more closely at them in our next episode. Until then, thanks for listening, good day and good soft skills.