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Employers of all shapes and sizes are requiring candidates to demonstrate strong communication skills, but often have different ideas of what effective communication means.

Recent studies have found that the ability to communicate effectively is the most widely and universally sought after skill in the job market today. When employers list “effective communication" as a job requirement, however, it can encompass a wide range of related skills and capabilities, and its definition can differ between fields or individual roles.

According to a study by Swedish job search platform Jobbland.se, effective communication is by far the most sought after soft skill among Canadian employers. The study published Oct. 1 found that it was listed as a required skill for more than 100,000 open positions advertised on LinkedIn, representing 42 per cent of all the jobs posted on the platform in Canada that day.

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Jonathan Bjorkman, Jobbland.se’s public relations and content manager, believes effective communication is such a popular requirement because it is applicable in a wide range of roles and professions. “Whether you’re working in politics or as a teacher, whatever your job is, being able to communicate clearly and effectively is often what’s most crucial.”

Effective communication, however, can mean different things to different employers, and can refer to a wide range of related capabilities.

“It’s not just about the ability to make a speech,” says Bryan Hancock, partner and global leader of McKinsey & Co.’s talent work. “It’s the ability to find what’s interesting and communicating that in a compelling way to your audience, in a way that recognizes where they’re coming from, and there’s just so many [skills] that go into that.”

Such skills can include problem solving, critical thinking, empathy, reading body language, active listening, writing and much more, according to Mr. Hancock. Despite the growing demand, however, Mr. Hancock says soft skills like communication are still considered secondary in most academic settings.

“I think there’s a disconnect when students graduate from high school or college between what they perceive their communication skills to be — based on the bar that was set for them — and what employers expect in terms of communicating in the business world,” he says.

Many students graduate without a strong understanding of their own abilities and limitations in non-technical areas such as communication, says Mr. Hancock, making the task of landing that all-important first job even more difficult.

“If we’re going to be able to create future workers that have the right set of skills, we can’t expect the employers to start from scratch,” he says. “Those are things that should [be taught] in high school or college.”

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Those seeking to improve their communication skills should therefore begin by having someone asses their current abilities, according to Ric Phillips, the head communication coach and trainer at Toronto-based 3V Communications Ltd. “It can be a friend or family member, as long as they’re going to be honest, but it’s better to get a teacher or a recruiter,” he says.

Since communication can refer to a variety of skills and attributes, Mr. Phillips recommends breaking feedback into three categories, often referred to as the “three Vs” of communication: verbal, which includes grammar and vocabulary; vocal, which includes tone and volume; and visual, which includes body language and appropriate attire.

“My advice is to start with those three big chunks — verbal, vocal and visual — and segment it so they have some guidance on how they’re giving feedback,” he says. “Once you know your weaknesses you can hire a communication coach like myself, you can talk to a career coach, you can go to YouTube channels with those specific targets in mind, or attend online courses, or read books.”

Beyond the direct assistance such resources can offer, Mr. Phillips says the act of practising will help build confidence, which can make a noticeable difference on its own.

“If people never practice and suddenly they have a big interview, they’ll be nervous,” he says. “Even during COVID, even though things are online, the fundamentals of [improving] communication are still: assess yourself or get someone to assess you, target them, practise them and keep yourself sharp so you’ll be more comfortable when you need it.”

While the pandemic has put greater emphasis on the value of soft skills such as communication, Mr. Phillips credits an earlier workplace transition for their current popularity.

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“[Twenty years ago] a technically skilled person could sit literally in the back room and work the computer or work the files and never be seen or heard,” he says. “In the modern era, what people want is the person in the back end on the computer to come out to the boardroom and explain to the president what the findings mean.”

Furthermore, Mr. Phillips believes Canada’s unique culture and history has lead the country to always put greater emphasis on strong communication, as compared with others.

“Our country, we didn’t take it from England with a gun, we negotiated it,” he says. “We’re negotiators, communicators and diplomats by nature; we grow up with this idea that you talk things out.”

That is why Mr. Phillips believes every Canadian can benefit from working on their communication skills, whether their role explicitly requires it or not. “That’s advice I’d give to everyone; practise these skills all the time so you’ll have more confidence when you need them,” he says.

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