What Employers Want: Communication Skills

In today’s post I continue my discussion of some of the most common skills that employers value and that you will often see listed in job advertisements. I started this discussion last week by writing about critical thinking skills, and today I tackle communication skills. Just what are employers looking for when they say they want someone with good communication skills? While this isn’t exactly a trick question, there are a lot of different ways to answer it, so I’ll suggest some of the most common ways to think about—and demonstrate—good communication skills.

The most obvious answer to this question is that employers want to hire people who demonstrate that they can use language clearly and correctly in both written and oral forms. (Side note: Many people would say written and verbal, thinking that “verbal” means oral. It doesn’t. “Verbal” communication is communication that uses words, so all communication that uses words, written or oral, is verbal.)

Job seekers are most often first screened through the review of a package of written application documents, which could include an actual application form, a resume, a cover letter, email correspondence, and/or writing samples. It is not uncommon for employers to request a writing sample, even for positions that don’t have the word “writer” or “editor” in the job title, although sometimes this request will come in the second stage of the hiring process, after an initial screening. What you must do to make it past the first (and possibly second) round of screening is to provide application materials that are as close to perfect as you can make them. If possible, have at least one other person—someone you know to have good writing skills—review the application materials before you submit them. (You can get advice on how to write good resumes and cover letters/email messages in my book’s Tip 38: Create (or update) your resume, Appendix I: Creating a resume, Tip 39: Learn to write good cover letters, and Appendix J: Creating a letter of application.)

If your application materials have demonstrated solid written communication skills, and if you meet most of the other requirements for the position, you’ll have a better chance of moving on to an interview than if you meet all the requirements and your application is imperfectly written. The interview is where you have the opportunity to demonstrate that you have good oral communication skills, so make sure you speak clearly, coherently, and with sufficient volume for the interviewer(s) to hear you.

Although most people will recognize that good communication skills involve the ability to write and speak clearly, there’s a third component that is often ignored, which is crucial, and which you can also demonstrate in an interview: listening. Too often, people are thinking ahead to what they’re going to say and not really listening to the person who is speaking to them. In an interview, be sure to listen carefully to any questions or comments, respond appropriately, and if you aren’t quite sure what they mean, go ahead and ask them to repeat the question or provide clarification. You will make a better impression by doing this than by trying to guess at their meaning and giving an answer that doesn’t actually correspond to the question.

One of the most important keys to good communication skills—whether written or oral—is recognizing that your response must be tailored to the specific audience (reader/listener). The way you talk to your grandmother is quite different from the way you talk to a prospective employer: the tone, word choice, and level of formality will all be different. Linguists call these changes “code switching,” and you demonstrate them in written communication as well as in oral communication. So present yourself in the best possible light when you have the opportunity to interview: speak slowly, avoid slang and profanity, try to eliminate pause sounds (“uh,” “er”), and don’t say “like” unless you are talking about something you have an actual preference for!