As technologists, we spend a significant amount of our time learning — new languages, new frameworks, new development models. Our industry moves so fast that those who do not learn soon find themselves left behind, less valuable, and less marketable.

However, all this technical knowledge is irrelevant if it is not combined with effective communication. Despite the usage of tools like Slack and email, most communication is still verbal.

Unfortunately, I often see technologists ignoring this critical skill. They’ll watch hours of tutorials to understand the latest version of Angular but won’t put any effort into improving their speaking. This oversight limits their career growth, as more capable communicators with equivalent technical skills are promoted over them.

While effective verbal communication is a huge topic way beyond the scope of an article, here are three simple pieces of advice that can help you become a better verbal communicator.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser implores writers to “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!”

“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy?”

This advice is no less relevant for speakers.

Effective speaking isn’t just about getting everything you want to say into the words leaving your mouth. It’s about doing it in a way that cuts out all the fluff, all the distractions, and all the irrelevancies, giving the listener the simplest path to understanding.

In writing, this process is a comfortable iteration of writing and revision. In speaking, it must be done in real-time between the moment an idea enters your mind and when that idea leaves your mouth. This is hard and requires practice.

It is frustratingly common to see speakers fail to communicate a key insight or critical understanding — not because their words don’t contain the necessary information but because the information is buried, hidden within, or behind distractions, irrelevancies, or editorialization.

Technologists who can cut the fluff and speak simply and concisely amplify their value within development teams. Practice this as much as you’d practice any other technical skill.

Listening While Explaining

So much of software development is explaining — moving understanding from one person to another. It might be a technical approach, implementation choices, or a strategic directive.

Unfortunately, too many people assume explaining is one-way communication. They think that it’s one person simply telling another what they know. This is incorrect.

Explaining requires listening. To explain something effectively, you must first understand what the other person knows, what they don’t know, where their confusion is, where they might have incorrect assumptions, etc. If you are explaining something complex, you should be listening as much as speaking. Possibly more.

Explaining by only speaking is like building a dam by throwing handfuls of dirt into a river. Yes, with enough dirt, you could dam a river, but if you don’t know the depth or speed of the river, it’s likely that every throw will immediately get swept away. Throw dirt for hours and hours and you’ll be no closer to a dam than when you started. In the same way, explaining without listening might get you nowhere.

Think of understanding as a tower of information. Each idea in this tower builds upon others and supports and reinforces ideas layered on it. It takes a lot of ideas to make the tower stable and resilient. When you understand something, you have a tall and stable tower of knowledge. The person you are explaining to has something less.

Your job is to help build their tower. In order to do this, you need to know exactly where their tower stops and where it is weak. You need to have them explain to you exactly what they know so you know how to build on this and where exactly to start adding your new pieces. To do this, you must listen. Listening is a core component of explaining anything, and most people in professional software development seem oblivious to this.

The skill of effectively explaining complex ideas is incredibly valuable, but this skill is woefully rare because too many people assume it’s just talking and so just start throwing dirt. Listening is a critical part of explaining anything, and without it, you will be an ineffective communicator.

How You Say It Matters

Leonardo Da Vinci spent years perfecting Mona Lisa’s smile. He understood that small changes in shape, color, and shadow could significantly alter her emotion. His attention to detail is what gives the painting its famous is-she-smiling-or-frowning allure.

Small changes in your tone, volume, cadence, and inflection have a similar effect on how your speaking is perceived. While what you say is important, how you say it is no less so.

The difference between passionate and exasperated or confident and condescending is often a small difference in tone. You may be saying all the right words, but how you are saying it is such a turn-off to those listening that they have dismissed you and are no longer processing anything leaving your mouth.

Do you want to have your brilliant idea dismissed just because the people you are pitching to think you sound bossy?

While this isn’t a speaking lesson, my one piece of advice is to pay attention to how those around you talk. Who seems calm and in control? Who seems agitated or frustrated? Why? Who is great at facilitating a conversation, steering it in a direction, building consensus, or diffusing a conflict? How are they doing it? What about how they are speaking is supporting and reinforcing what they are saying?

Summing It Up

Building complex software requires teams of people. These people must collaborate, and that requires effective communication. While this communication will be spread over many channels (email, IM, GIT comments, etc.), speaking is still and always will be a critical component of team collaboration.

Too many technologists fail to have the impact they want or progress in the career they desire simply because they do not speak effectively.

Simplifying, listening while explaining, and paying attention to tone and inflection will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of your speaking and the value you bring to your development team.

Being both an expert in your technology and a strong communicator will make you hugely valuable to any employer and supercharge your career.