Tips for developing communication skills
Just because you talk every day
doesn’t mean you’re working on your
communications skills. There’s more to it than that.
By Brent Kelly
Whatever your business or skillset, I’ll bet you’ve heard some form of the phrase, “Thanks, but I’m just not interested.” I know I have!
Prior to joining Sitkins Group several years ago, I owned a marketing and consulting business that I wanted to expand with more speaking engagements and clients. To help me improve, I enrolled in a mentorship program on leadership and sales.
One day, I asked one of my mentors, Paul Martinelli, for his thoughts on how I could grow my business. (Incidentally, I still work with him because he’s a fantastic business leader, trainer, and coach.)
After giving him an overview, I mentioned that I often shared with prospects what I was trying to do and how I wanted to help them, and yet I still wasn’t getting their business.
I was hoping Paul could tell me why. Instead, he asked me a simple but powerful question that continues to shape how I do business today: “Are they not interested or are you not interesting?”
That put the ball squarely in my court.
Rather than blaming rejection on the prospective client (“They didn’t understand what I have to offer,” “They weren’t listening closely enough,” etc.), Paul’s question made me take a good, hard look at how and what I was communicating, and why it was important.
Why does this matter? The ability to communicate is paramount to success, not only in insurance and financial services, but in almost any aspect of life. Communication skills include the ability to listen, ask questions, and present at a high level. You won’t master these skills simply by talking, because you might not be saying the right things.
Ultimately, you must captivate and engage your audience. To do that, you must become more interesting so that people will want to buy in and say yes to what you have to offer.
Connection = Influence
Do you communicate or connect? The best influencers connect with rather than communicate to. People say that it’s a soft skill, but I’d say it’s the toughest to develop, learn and master. Arguably, it’s also the most useful skill to have.
Keep in mind that building higher-level connections affords you higher-level influence, which makes everything you do easier.
One of the questions we frequently ask in our training sessions comes from The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller: “What’s the one thing you could do that would make everything else easier or even unnecessary?”
According to presidential historian Robert Dallek, the most successful U.S. presidents share the following top five qualities, all of which are tied to high-level communication and all of which also apply to company/agency leaders.
- Vision. Can you communicate where you/they want to go or are you just talking? A vision is your greater purpose.
- Consensus building. This is why politics can be so frustrating. We all have different backgrounds and viewpoints, so we’re not all going to completely agree on everything. But if you can find a way to align divergent interests and ideas, and compromise, you can build consensus.
- Charisma. It’s hard to define charisma because it’s an abstract quality. Perceived as an “it” factor, charisma is an energy that emanates from within. Maybe you
can’t describe it, but you know it when you see it. For example, when some people enter, a room seems to get brighter. Are people attracted to your energy?
In today’s overstimulated world,
the greatest gift you can give another person
is your time and undivided attention … .
- Pragmatism. Do you base your actions on practical considerations rather than ideologies? Do you know how to get things done? Pragmatic leaders are known for meeting challenges and completing tasks in a timely and efficient manner.
- Trustworthiness. Do you follow through and do what you said you’d do? Do you keep your promises? It takes time—sometimes years—to build trust, but only seconds to lose it. You lose trust when you lie, mislead, or don’t follow through. It’s a connection killer.
How many of those qualities do you possess? It’s important that you develop at least three or four of the five, because they’re what separate you in the marketplace. Increasingly these days, people who log too much screen time lack these vital communication skills.
That may not sit well with people who make buying decisions based on their emotions, such as whether they like and trust you.
On the other hand, if you can articulate what you have to offer and command attention from your audience, they’ll connect with you and believe what you’re saying. As a result, you’ll get the account.
Technology continues to make a major impact on how we do business, because today, anyone with a smartphone has access to all the data and information they desire in a matter of seconds. But there’s a big difference between having the data and information and knowing how to dispense it.
The ability to connect and share relevant information with others is one of the highest levels of communication, and something technology (even AI) can’t replace. But if all you do is regurgitate facts and figures (which computers can do faster) you’re in trouble.
Becoming more interesting
Dale Carnegie once said, “To be interesting, be interested.” That’s why the first thing you must do is be fully engaged with and focused on the person or people you’re speaking with.
It’s easy to get distracted by intrusive thoughts (“Did I include the projected budget in my proposal?”) and activities (checking email, shopping online, etc.). We’ve all done it at one time or another—or had it done to us. You can usually tell when someone is not really listening or is doing other things while you’re trying to have a conversation.
In today’s overstimulated world, the greatest gift you can give another person is your time and undivided attention, whether you’re talking in person, on the phone or via Zoom.
Also, find common ground. This goes back to Rapport Building 101. What barriers prevent you from finding common ground? The most common ones include:
- Assumption. It’s far too easy to misinterpret another person’s motives or meaning when we assume things. We may think we know what the other person is saying or thinking, so we don’t ask the right questions that would confirm or refute our assumptions. This can throw you off course and in the wrong direction very quickly.
- Arrogance. Usually this isn’t meant maliciously, but because we have the technical expertise and knowledge that others may lack, it’s easy for us to come across as unlikeable know-it-alls. Are you an expert who sincerely wants to help clients or a know-it-all out to prove how smart you are?
- Indifference/nonchalance. You aren’t communicating and you’re not present because, deep down, you really don’t care about what’s important to others. This also gets back to being 100% present.
Preparing is caring. How much time do you spend researching and rehearsing before you meet with a client? Or do you skip the prep work and just show up, hoping you’ll say the right things? Every opportunity deserves your very best. Don’t just appear and try to wing it.
Besides making you look good, preparation also allows you to identify key elements that influence how the business operates. What challenges do they face? What are their frustrations or roadblocks? What connections do you have in common? What is their vision for the business?
Preparing key questions gives purpose to your meeting and paves the way for deeper-level communication right off the bat.
In the insurance business, you’re a risk-based professional. As such, it behooves you to take the underwriter’s view when you’re preparing. The underwriter wants to know about risk, namely how a business manages it, what they’re doing to mitigate it or transfer it, etc. This is true in benefits, as well.
If you’re a producer and you want to be interesting, ask underwriters interesting questions (“What is your process for doing X?” “How do you determine X?”). Taking the underwriter’s view and asking specific, risk- or benefit-based questions leads to deeper conversations than “How’s business?”
Regardless of how well
you’re doing today, you don’t want to look back in
five years and realize you haven’t changed
for the better.
Skills to develop
On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is the skill of communication? Whenever I’ve queried agency leaders, producers or service people on the subject, everyone says 10. I agree! I don’t believe there’s a more important skill than being able to communicate.
Notice that I refer to communication as a skill, meaning it must be developed through ongoing practice. This applies to any profession.
If you’re a basketball player, how important is it to be able to dribble a ball? Probably a 10. So, how often do you practice the skill of communicating? If you’re like most people, you’ll answer four, five, or six on a 10-point scale, with 10 indicating it’s a priority that warrants intentional, frequent practice.
Obviously, there’s a gap between communicating effectively and developing the skills to do so. Just because you talk every day doesn’t mean you’re working on your communications skills! There’s more to it than that.
To improve your communication skills, work on the following:
Asking the right questions. Often, people ask close-ended questions. These are the questions that can be answered with a yes or no. For example, “Are you satisfied with your current insurance coverage?” or “Is there anything I can do for you today?”
Better questions would be open-ended ones such as, “What is your method of measuring X?” and “How do you determine Y?” Both require more than a yes/no response. To hone your questioning skills, take time to role-play and record yourself.
Peer-to-peer and risk-based questions assume that people are already doing specific things and should help the client recognize what they’re not getting from their current agent. “Tell me how you constructed your current risk management plan; can you share an example with me?” or “How do you measure total cost of risk or cost of benefits in your company today? When was that last done?”
Remember, we’re not trying to attack them, we’re trying to help them stop and think about how risk and human resources impact their business or life; it becomes a conversation, not a sales pitch. You know they’re interested when they say things like, “That’s a great question—nobody’s ever asked me that before,” or “I’m going to think about that. It sounds like something we should consider.”
Active listening. Are you listening to respond or are you listening to understand? It’s tempting to recite talking points based on what you think a prospect needs. Resist the urge. Stop telling them what they need.
Let them do the talking. Just WAIT—this stands for “Why Am I Talking?” Remember, the more you listen, the more you are listened to. If you can keep your speaking/listening ratio to 20/80, you’re doing really well.
Here are some phrases that will not only keep them talking, but also provide additional information about their needs or concerns.
- Tell me more
- Please help me understand this better
- What has been the impact of X?
- Which means …? This is a clarifying question that can prevent flawed assumptions about what the other person is saying.
- Why? I call this the Toddler Question. My younger children are great at this! For example, “You have to get ready for school.” Why? “Because school starts in 30 minutes, and you aren’t dressed yet.” Why? While this may be an exemplary stalling technique for kids, it is also an effective way to obtain more information from a prospect or client.
Speaking. Over the years, studies on influence while communicating have shown that how a message is delivered may carry more weight with the recipient than the message itself. The consensus is that influence is 7% words, 38% tonality, and 55% physiology. That’s why people get frustrated with emails and texts.
Delivered without expression or inflection, the written word may be misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Obviously, speaking skills are a critical component of communication. To hone yours, make it a priority. Make practice non-optional and schedule it. If it’s not on your calendar, you won’t do it. Consequently, you won’t improve because you can’t practice speaking skills in your head.
These include asking for a referral, delivering an executive briefing, presenting your 30-second commercial, and any other things you do that you’d like to improve.
Also, record yourself doing those things. While it never hurts to rehearse mentally, it doesn’t replace speaking. Without ongoing practice, what’s in your head won’t be the same as what comes out of your mouth.
What is your professional growth communication plan? I believe in never-ending personal and professional development. We can all get better at our craft.
Regardless of how well you’re doing today, you don’t want to look back in five years and realize you haven’t changed for the better. You haven’t become more interesting and you’re not a better communicator.
You owe it to yourself and your clients to change that. It could be something as simple as reading a book, taking a speaking class, or practicing with an accountability partner. But you must do something if you want to become your best version possible.
What will you do in the next 90 days, six months, or year to improve your communication skills? If you believe that communication is important, what behaviors are necessary to help you get the results you desire?
Brent Kelly, president of Sitkins Group, Inc., is a motivating influencer, coach and speaker who has a passion for helping insurance agencies maximize their performance. He spent 15 years in the insurance industry as a successful commercial lines producer and was named one of the top 12 young agents in the country in 2012. To help your agency gain clarity, build confidence, and improve culture, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit sitkins.com