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The art of communication

If no one in the boardroom appears to be listening to you, it may be time to rethink how you communicate, says Stefan Stern. Body language, voice and tone are as important as content

Sometimes HR professionals feel as though they are stuck in an alien climate, surrounded by uncomprehending colleagues. But communication is a subtle process and perhaps if no one in the boardroom seems to be listening it is time to think a bit harder about how you communicate.

Khalid Aziz has been working with board directors on their communication and presentation skills for more than two decades. Recently he has been hearing things within those boardrooms that should make any senior HR manager sit up and listen.

The mistake that many HR people make, which gets in the way of an excellent relationship with their CEOs, is to put too much store by what their fellow HR professionals think, says Aziz. Too often in the eyes of the CEO the HR director goes native, and becomes a creature of some notional HR plc rather than a director of the organisation that pays their wages.

And poor communication may lie at the heart of this problem. HR managers have constructed a completely new language which seems to some CEOs to be quite disconnected from their business imperatives, Aziz says. Indeed some CEOs lose patience with the HR function, who often dont seem to understand the real problems facing the company.

It may not just be the vocabulary and mind-set that are wrong. You may have to rethink the way you communicate. Body language, voice, tone and attitude may all need attention and some improvement if you are going to get your message across. Andrew Mallett, of the communications consultancy Present Action, pays particular attention to some of these aspects in his work with corporate clients.

According to research psychologist Albert Mehrabian, only 7% of your impact in a talk or presentation depends on what you actually say, says Mallett. The way you look (55%) and your voice (38%) are both far more important.

Great communicators pay attention to this sort of detail. But it doesnt come naturally to most people. What else does Mallett see as crucial in communicating effectively with peers? In terms of engagement, your eyes are your most valuable asset, he says. Maintain eye contact with the people you are speaking to at all times. This means catching the individuals eyes and holding for about two seconds before moving onto someone else. Any longer than two seconds on one person can be disconcerting or challenging. Any less than two seconds can look shifty or insecure.

These are the subtle points that have to be mastered, as well as the more familiar principles of making effective presentations. But it is not an indulgence or luxury to fine-tune these skills. As Aziz puts it, Excellent communication skills are no longer an optional extra in business they are absolutely vital. They enable a leader to inspire and motivate within the company, and to communicate with external audiences, as well as securing widespread support. Get this stuff right and your colleagues will start to listen.

Dos and donts of presentations


  • know your audience then you can tailor your presentation to avoid or defuse contentious issues

  • avoid jargon


  • get flustered by aggressive audiences if someone challenges your presentation, answer the question, but dont allow a dialogue to develop

  • avoid difficult questions

  • use too many visual aids or over-ambitious, distracting technology

  • try and get too many messages across

(Source: Aziz Corporation)