A young man whom I had known since he was in high school stopped by to see me and proudly displayed his new MBA. "I know a Master's degree alone doesn't guarantee success," he said. "What do you think is the most important quality for someone who wants to become a business leader?"

I answered without hesitation: "The ability to communicate."

The leader who can't communicate can't create the conditions that motivate. The genius who can't communicate is intellectually impotent. The organization that can't communicate can't change, and the corporation that can't change is dead.

The good news is that anyone can become an effective communicator. The door to effective communication will open to anyone who uses these five keys.


1. Desire

Human infants have an inborn desire to communicate; that desire enables them to pick up words quickly and to enlarge their vocabularies continuously. That same kind of desire can enable you to enlarge your stock of words and improve your skill in employing them.

Demosthenes, the Greek orator, had a desire to achieve eloquence after he was hissed and booed off the platform in Athens. He cultivated the art of speech-writing, then went to the shores of the Aegean Sea, where he strengthened his voice by shouting into the wind for hours at a time. To improve his diction, he practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth. To overcome his fear, he practiced with a sword hanging over his head. To clarify his presentation, he studied the techniques of the masters.

Today, more than 2000 years later, the name Demosthenes is synonymous with oratorical eloquence.


2. Understand the Process

Communication consists of sending and receiving messages. Language, as the primary conveyer of thoughts and ideas, turns abstract concepts into words, written or spoken, that symbolize those thoughts.

If the receiver's mind can immediately translate those words back into mental pictures, the communication is much more vivid and meaningful. If I say, "I want a desk for my office," my listener has only a vague idea of what I want. Saying "I want a brown walnut desk" conveys a more vivid mental picture.

The more skillful you become at conveying images, the more effective your communication will be.


3. Master the Basic Skills

Some people think the first requisite for good communication is an exhaustive vocabulary and unerring command of grammar and English usage.

Words and correct grammar are important, and yes, it helps to know which words and expressions are considered standard, and which substandard, among educated people. But slavish allegiance to the rules of grammar can actually impede communication. People sometimes go to great lengths to avoid an "ungrammatical" usage, forgetting the most important rule of communication: make it clear and understandable.

The vocabulary you use in everyday speech has probably served you well. You use the words you understand; chances are, they're the words your friends, colleagues and employees understand, too. If you use words well beyond the vocabularies of the people you're trying to communicate with, you're not communicating--you're showing off.

Read the Gettysburg Address, the Sermon on the Mount or Robert Frost's poetry. The communications that endure are written in plain, simple language.


4. Practice

A young piano student listened with awe as a virtuoso poured all his love and skill into a complex selection of great compositions.

"It must be great to have all the practicing behind you and be able to sit down and play like that," he said when the maestro had finished.

"I still practice eight hours each day," the older man replied.

"But, why?!" asked the astounded young man. "You're already so good!"

"Ah, but I want to become superb," came the response.

I teach communication skills to thousands of people each year. Most of the people I reach are content to become good; few are willing to invest the extra effort to become superb.

To become superb requires practice. It's not enough to know what it takes to connect with people, to influence their behavior, to create a motivational environment for them, to help them to identify with your message. The techniques of communication have to become part of your daily activity, as natural to you as swimming to a duck. The more you practice them, the easier you'll find it to connect with people, whether with individuals or with a group of thousands.


5. Patience

Nobody becomes a polished, professional communicator on the first try. It takes patience. A few years ago, William White, a journalism and English instructor, edited a collection of articles written by Ernest Hemingway in the early '20s, when the author was a young reporter for a Toronto newspaper. The writing was good, but not superb; it gave a faint foregleam of the masterful storyteller who would emerge in The Old Man and the Sea, but this was not the Hemingway of literary legend.

What was lacking? Experience. The genius was there all along, but it needed to incubate. The sands of time can abrade or polish; it depends on whether you use your time purposely or let it pass haphazardly.

Acquiring skill as a communicator requires constant, careful, loving attention to the craft. The cub reporter didn't transform himself into a successful novelist through one blinding flash of literary insight; he made the progression from "good" to "superb" through hundreds of tiny improvements from day to day.


NIDO QUBEIN is one of America's most accomplished
entrepreneurs and public speakers, a high-powered corporate banker and extraordinarily accomplished
philanthropist. We featured an
interview with Nido in our November/December 2003 issue.