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Targeted Soft Skills Training

Why “Communication Skills Training” doesn’t work

There is widespread agreement that soft skills are important. There is some disagreement about whether we have labeled them correctly. Some writers suggest renaming them and prefer the term “power skills.” If you want to be more powerful in social and professional situations, develop your soft skills! If you want more power at work, improve your soft skills! I see the value in that name and agree that if you look closely at the people who have power, they seem to have mastered many soft skills. Seth Godin speaking at ATD’s International Conference and Exposition referred to them as “real skills,” again suggesting that the current label is less than apt. This is not to suggest that other skills are not “real.” Obviously wiring the alarm system in an office building is a real skill, too. The point is to elevate the status of “soft” skills so let’s go ahead and rename them.

But what exactly are we renaming? What are the soft skills? Do a quick web search. I found “6 Soft Skills Employers Are Looking For,” “The Top Ten Soft Skills,” “15 Examples of Soft Skills,” “87 Soft Skills,” “99 Key Skills,” “135 Soft Skills,” and more. So somewhere between six and 135 skills are needed to be a soft skill success. That makes things difficult for trainers tasked with developing soft skills training. How do we decide what should be included? While the numbers are radically different, certain terms appear more than others: communication, teamwork, work ethic, adaptability, problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, and leadership, for examples. Even if you set out to develop training for the soft skills most often mentioned, it would be a very difficult task.

One difficulty is that some traits are fairly hard-wired in people. Adaptability? Maruja has years and years of being fairly inflexible and changing that is not a simple proposition. Work ethic? From kindergarten through high school, teachers have used various euphemisms for lazy when describing Ross, so how will you change his fundamental nature? Teamwork? In the book Quiet, Susan Cain says that between 1/3 and ½ of people are introverts who prefer solitude and thrive alone. Collaboration with a team is painful for Lindsay. Can you change who she is? We can say we value these “soft” skills, but is it realistic to think that all people can develop them? No.

Training companies that say they do “soft skills training” are misleading us. No one has the power to transform every employee. A more reasonable approach is to target specific skills to specific jobs and particular employees. Don’t say “Our company will be giving soft skills training to all of our employees.” Do say “This particular job demands creativity and problem solving” or “This job demands excellent communication skills.” It is impossibly hard to develop every soft skill, so narrow the focus and target your training. Make sure your training objectives are realistic, necessary, and likely to succeed.

Another difficulty: some of the terms are so vague as to be worthless. Imagine a company saying, “We want all of our people to have good employee skills.” At first glance, that sounds good. Of course they do. But what does that mean? It is too general to convey actionable meaning. The same complaint can be leveled at many soft skills. Communication? That sounds good. Who could possibly argue with that? I can. The term is so broad it tells me nothing about what is really needed. Written communication skills? What kind of writing? Business letters?   Training manuals? Tweets for social media? Effective emails? Grants? Proposals? These are all quite distinct and someone good at one of them may not be proficient at another. Or did you mean oral communication skills? What kind of oral communication? One-on-one? Staff meeting? Interviewing? Small group presentation? Large group presentation? Webinar? Video training? PowerPoint presentation? Customer-facing work? Again, someone may be a master at one of these but quite poor at another.

Stop using broad terms and describe exactly what you want. Don’t design “Communications Training.” Design an “Email Writing Training,” or a “Presentation Skills Training.” Each piece of communication is hard enough to master on its own. Presentation skills, for example, are what I focus on. I assure you; it is extremely hard to become a powerful presenter. Within just that realm, you have to understand how to create a great presentation including understanding the audience, providing valuable and engaging content, organizing that content, and developing audio and visual aids.

And after creating something impressive, you have to perform. The skills of effective delivery can take years to master. Becoming poised and confident, having just the right voice, making meaningful eye contact, adding life to your words, using hand, face, and body gestures to enhance your words, adjusting pace for maximum effect—these do not come easily. You can’t gloss over presentation skills as part of a generic communications skills training. It won’t work.

Bottom line: Know that soft skills are power skills and real skills. And know that soft skills are really hard. Which piece of which skill is crucial for the organization, for a particular employee, and for a specific job? With that answered, targeted soft skills training will be able to make an impact.