The most important consulting skill is… effective communication

I think many people imagine that technical acumen and razor-sharp problem solving skills are the most important skills to be a successful consultant. I would strongly disagree. While these two skills are *absolutely* essential for success, I think they are less important than the ability to effectively communicate with your clients.

Effective communication is a skill that doesn't come naturally to most people – it has to be nurtured, practiced, and perfected. I could break down "communication" into a variety of sub-classes:

  • Presenting to a large audience
    • E.g. a conference session, or a large group of IT staff
  • Presenting to a small audience
    • E.g. a class, or a targeted set of IT staff
  • 1-<5 discussions with technologists (devs, DBAs, IT directors/managers)
  • 1-<5 discussions with executives (VPs, CXOs)
  • 1-1 discussions with technologists
  • 1-1 discussions with executives
  • Whitepapers
  • Design, analysis, or strategy reports
  • Status emails or general email conversation
  • Business solicitations

Each of these requires a different approach. Before any kind of client presentation, meeting, or phone call, or when crafting a report or email, I ask myself the following questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What am I trying to convey to them?
  • Is my message appropriate for the audience? (e.g. I wouldn't necessarily be discussing business implications of growth choices for the entire company's data tier with a developer, nor would I necessarily be discussing index tuning strategies for specific tables with a CIO.)
  • What politics and inter-personal/departmental relationships do I need to be aware of?
  • What would the ramifications be if my presentation/call/report/email was described or forwarded to another person/part of the company? (e.g. am I being asked to deliver some metrics/advice that would be unwelcome – but needed – in another department?)
  • Is my communication in the overall client's best interests?
  • Am I sure I have all the pertinent facts and details to be able to give my opinion credibly and correctly?
  • Am I 100% sure of the technical content of my communication?
  • Is my tone correct? (e.g. sometimes one needs to take the tone that 'you hired me because of my experience and knowledge, and in this case, respectfully, person X is incorrect' – but it needs to be done professionally.)

And of course everything needs to be concise, bullet-points instead of waffle-y paragraphs where needed, spel chcked, also grammer must be write actually two.

There's no excuse for incorrectness in written communications – many people have the opinion that sloppy communications indicates a predilection for sloppiness in other areas. I also subscribe to this view. Don't get me wrong – it's fine to have mistakes in tweets and the odd email – but consistent errors in emails, blogs and other professional communications doesn't look good. Seeing these things makes me cringe.

But so far I've only mentioned the consultant communicating with the client. The client's communication with the consultant is way more important. You have to be an 'active listener', where you're not just passively listening to the client but you're taking it in, processing it, making sure it makes sense, asking questions for clarification and so on. If you can't work out what you're being asked to do for the client then you're in trouble. It could be that the client isn't very good at explaining, in which case you need to restate what you think you've been asked to do so everyone's on the same page. Every few new clients we find we're following other consultants who didn't do what the client wanted because of communications issues, not necessarily technical deficiencies.

I am overwhelmingly pleased that I grew up into a manager and senior contributor in a fast-moving product group at Microsoft – there was no choice there but to communicate effectively (in all the various forms I listed in the first set of bullets above) – or be left behind – it was that simple. Trial-by-fire is a great way to learn.

If you don't have an opportunity like that, there are plenty of ways to practice – user groups, blogging, and whitepapers – and just making yourself be a better communicator wherever you work. And you might consider having a partner or colleague review certain key communications – Kimberly and I do that for each other all the time (like this blog post, for example).

Effective communication is an indispensable skill that I don't think enough emphasis is placed on in the tech community.

What do you think?

14 thoughts on “The most important consulting skill is… effective communication

  1. Paul,

    You’re right on the money. As a BI consultant, I help to create a solution that someone else (in the client organization) will maintain in the future. Which means the importance of communication, documentation, and knowledge transfer can’t be overstated. Sure, that means we share the secret sauce – but it also means we gain credibility. Which leads to a good, trustworthy relationship. Which leads to good references & referrals.

    Regarding your point of listening carefully to the client, I would add one tidbit. Frequent check-ins to verify if we got it right helps to mitigate misunderstandings. Sounds simple, but it’s so easy to overlook when we’re just heads-down with development work.

    Good stuff! Thanks!

    -Melissa

  2. Awesome mail Paul!

    Yes, communication is the essential part of every business and life too. I do agree with all the points you have mentioned in bullets.

    If anyone like to practice this skill then they have a great opportunity in the real world. If someone able to convey their message in single shot (polite, key points, pleasant tone, CONFIDENCE) then it is the success of the person in the world of communication.

  3. I totally agree with this. What I often see with a lot of people nowadays – whether in IT or not – is the fact that they have become accustomed to non-verbal, non-face-to-face communications like email and text messages. While this has become a norm especially when managing virtual teams from around the world, it is very important to engage and communicate in a more friendly manner. Grab that phone and call someone, walk towards a colleague instead of sending an email. The communication becomes very effective as emotions, passion and expressions become alive as compared to simply writing an email. And it goes two ways. There’s a reason we have two ears and a mouth – we need to listen more and talk less to better understand in order to communicate effectively. And this is more important now that we are living in a global community where we need to understand not just the message being communicated but also the cultural context that goes along with it. And, yes, this is something that needs to be emphasized in the tech community. Which is why I love the fact that PASS has allocated Professional Development sessions for the annual summit. Soft skills and emotional intelligence are becoming more important in our day and age to be successful

  4. Paul,
    This is great post.I second that with you.

    –Effective communication is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most people – it
    –has to be nurtured, practiced, and perfected.

    I love this line.I think this is for me.

    i often did grammar/Spel mistakes. Nowadays i improved a bit.

    Thanks for writing/Sharing like this(Non technical post). We need more post like this from you paul -:)

  5. Great post! This really highlights something that as professionals in all professions need to practice. For some, this comes easy and appears to come naturally. Hoever, for someone like myself who tends to be more introvert than extrovert this can be difficult but it does become easier over time. When I attend a user group meeting, I always make it a habit of introducing myself to at least 3 people. At work, I try to present topics to different levels to get exposure. Thanks for bringing some attention to this.

    J.D.

  6. Being out of college as long as I have, the computer courses I took are incredibly obsolete, except for some basic theory. The courses that have been the most useful are public speaking and business writing. Not my favorite at the time, but they have been crucial in my career.

  7. Paul,

    Very nice advice on communication. Do you have any particular book in mind that will be useful for improving the types of communication in your blog?

    Thanks

    AL

  8. I totally agree with you. For the most part, I’ve worked with great communicators and people with great people skills. I’ve learned a great deal from them. However, there are those few occasions when you run into a person who has no communication skills and is unwilling to change (too introverted possibly). It is very frustrating and makes me realize that I will have more to grow in my communication skills.

    I wish everyone could read your Blog!
    Thanks,
    Barb

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